More Giant Pandas Are Coming to the U.S. in a New Loan From China

China plans to send a male and a female panda to the San Diego Zoo as early as this summer, and negotiations are underway for pandas’ possible return to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

Two pandas leaning against each other near some green grass
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are two of the giant pandas who lived at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in recent years. They were returned to China in November 2023. National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

For the first time in more than 20 years, China is preparing to send giant pandas to the United States as a symbol of cooperation between the two nations, reports the Associated Press’ Julie Watson.

Continuing a decades-long tradition of “panda diplomacy,” the China Wildlife Conservation Association plans to deliver two of the beloved black-and-white animals to the San Diego Zoo later this year.

The association has also signed an agreement with the Madrid Zoo in Spain and is in talks with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI) in Washington, D.C. and the Schönbrunn Zoo in Austria. These institutions are discussing “a new round of international giant panda conservation cooperation,” according to a statement from the Chinese Embassy in the U.S., as reported by the New York Times’ Claire Moses.

China hopes the forthcoming “cooperative research” efforts will focus on controlling and preventing disease in giant pandas, per the New York Times.

The San Diego Zoo could welcome the new pandas—one female and one male—as early as this summer. The female could be a descendant of Bai Yun and Gao Gao, two of the California zoo’s former pandas.

“We’re very excited and hopeful,” says Megan Owen, vice president of conservation science for the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, to the AP. “They’ve expressed a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to re-initiate panda cooperation starting with the San Diego Zoo.”

Pandas have been a symbol of diplomacy between the U.S. and China since 1972, when China gifted a pair to the National Zoo during Richard Nixon’s presidency. In the years that followed, China continued lending the animals to U.S. zoos to help encourage reproduction and save giant pandas from extinction. Those efforts, among other conservation initiatives, helped boost the dwindling wild population—which numbered 1,216 in the 1980s—to more than 1,800 individuals in 2014, the most recent survey. Another 600 pandas live in captivity.

But as ties between the two nations have become increasingly strained, questions swirled around whether “panda diplomacy” would continue. “Beijing has been making its unhappiness known by recalling its softest power: pandas,” write Vic Chiang and Lily Kuo for the Washington Post.

In recent years, China did not renew expiring loan agreements at three U.S. zoos. As a result, the San Diego Zoo bid farewell to its last pandas in 2019, while the Memphis Zoo sent back its panda, Ya Ya, last April. And, in November, NZCBI said goodbye to its three giant pandas, Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and Xiao Qi Ji.

Today, Zoo Atlanta has the only four remaining giant pandas on U.S. soil.

A Giant Farewell to Giant Pandas Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji

NZCBI confirmed it’s in talks with the China Wildlife Conservation Association “to develop a future giant panda program,” says Brandie Smith, the zoo’s director, in a statement shared with Smithsonian magazine.

“It’s always been our intention and hope to have giant pandas at the zoo in the future and continue our research here and conservation work in China,” she adds. “After 52 years of success, we remain committed to giant panda conservation.”

The ensuing return of pandas to the U.S. wasn’t a total surprise. Chinese President Xi Jinping hinted at the possibility during a November meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in California—the first time leaders of the two nations had met face to face in a year.

“I was told that many American people, especially children, were really reluctant to say goodbye to the pandas, and went to the zoo to see them off,” Xi said at a dinner with business executives after the meeting, as reported by NBC News’ Larissa Gao. A month earlier, tens of thousands of visitors had flocked to the zoo in Washington for a farewell Panda Palooza.

“I also learned that the San Diego Zoo and the Californians very much look forward to welcoming pandas back,” Xi added.

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