For the past six months, the giant panda habitat at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI) has sat empty, a sign outside of its entrance informing visitors that the beloved black-and-white bears who once occupied the enclosure are now living in China.

By the end of 2024, however, the species is set to make its triumphant return to Washington, D.C., bringing a yearlong panda drought in the nation’s capital to a close.

The China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA), which owns the vast majority of pandas held in captivity, has agreed to loan a pair of pandas to the Zoo for ten years in exchange for an annual fee of $1 million. The funds will support animal research and conservation efforts in China. Two-year-old male Bao Li (the son of Bao Bao, a female panda born at NZCBI in 2013) and 2-year-old female Qing Bao will arrive in Washington later this year.

Qing Bao, a 2-year-old female panda
Qing Bao, a 2-year-old female panda Roshan Patel / Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

“We’re thrilled to announce the next chapter of our breeding and conservation partnership begins by welcoming two new bears, including a descendant of our beloved panda family,” says NZCBI’s director, Brandie Smith, in a statement. “This historic moment is proof … our collaboration with Chinese colleagues has made an irrefutable impact. Through this partnership, we have grown the panda population, advanced our shared understanding of how to care for this beloved bear, and learned what’s needed to protect wild pandas and preserve native habitat.”

After traveling from China to Washington on a special FedEx cargo plane, the pandas will be quarantined for a minimum of 30 days. They will then take a few weeks to settle into their new home before making their public debut. Per the statement, this highly anticipated date “will be announced as soon as the animal care team feels the bears are ready to meet visitors.”

Born just over a month apart in the summer of 2021, Qing Bao (whose name translates to “green” and “treasure”) and Bao Li (whose name means “treasure” and “energetic”) currently live at the Shensuping Panda Base in Wolong. The bears won’t be ready to breed for another few years, as pandas only reach sexual maturity between 4 and 7 years old. Any cubs born to the pair will move to China by age 4.

To prepare for the species’ return to Washington, NZCBI is renovating its giant panda habitat. The revamped space will boast new rock features with shallow pools, bamboo stands for foraging and multi-level climbing structures. The Zoo is seeking $25 million in public and corporate donations to cover the cost of renovations, the annual fee paid to the CWCA, upgrades to the Giant Panda Cam, animal care and other related expenses over the next ten years.

The revival of panda diplomacy

NZCBI’s most recent panda residents—26-year-old Tian Tian, 25-year-old Mei Xiang and their 3-year-old son, Xiao Qi Jideparted for China last fall, leaving Washington without pandas for the first time in 23 years. Currently, Zoo Atlanta is home to the only remaining pandas on United States soil. But that family of four is set to move to China by the end of the year.

The Washington pandas weren’t the only members of their species to return to China in 2023: Zoos in Tennessee, Scotland and the Netherlands also sent bears back to their native country, prompting speculation that the era of panda diplomacy was coming to an end amid heightened tensions between China and Western democracies.

Luckily for panda lovers, predictions of the species’ prolonged absence from the U.S. proved unfounded. A week after Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji bid Washington farewell, Chinese President Xi Jinping unexpectedly signaled his country’s willingness to send pandas back to the U.S. during diplomatic talks held in California. A few months later, in February 2024, the Chinese Embassy announced that the CWCA had reached agreements with the San Diego Zoo and the Madrid Zoo in Spain “on a new round of international giant panda conservation cooperation,” per a statement quoted by the New York Times. A pair of adult pandas is slated to arrive at the San Diego Zoo as early as this summer. A separate set of pandas will travel to the San Francisco Zoo in 2025.

The history of giant pandas in Washington, D.C.

Bao Li and Qing Bao will be the ninth and tenth pandas to call Washington home—not counting cubs that died before being named or shortly after birth. The pandas’ presence in D.C. continues a 52-year tradition that began with an offhand comment made by Pat Nixon in February 1972. During a visit to China, the first lady spotted a cigarette tin decorated with an image of pandas, prompting her to say, “Aren’t they cute? I love them.” Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai replied, “I’ll give you some.” “Cigarettes?” Nixon asked. “No,” Zhou said. “Pandas.”

Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing
Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, the first pandas to live at NZCBI National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

Ling-Ling, a 136-pound female, and Hsing-Hsing, a 74-pound male, arrived in Washington that April to great fanfare. During the animals’ first month in the capital, more than one million visitors flocked to see them. Though Zoo staff hoped the pandas would conceive naturally upon reaching maturity, they struggled to mate, in part due to Hsing-Hsing’s “aberrant stance,” in the words of a curator. When the pair successfully mated for the first time in March 1983, the Associated Press announced that “Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling have finally done their thing-thing,” capping an “arduous and frustrating courtship.”

Between July 1983 and September 1989, Ling-Ling gave birth to five cubs, none of which lived for more than a few days. Ling-Ling died suddenly of heart failure in 1992, at age 23. Hsing-Hsing survived his mate by just under seven years. Scientists decided to euthanize the 28-year-old panda in 1999 due to kidney disease and other age-related health problems.

Following Hsing-Hsing’s death, the Panda House stood empty for more than a year. Its next residents, 2-year-old Mei Xiang and 3-year-old Tian Tian, arrived in Washington in December 2000 on a long-term loan from China. Staff were hopeful that the pandas, who seemed more compatible behavior-wise than Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, would produce a surviving cub naturally, but after repeated attempts failed, they decided to try artificial insemination. Mei Xiang gave birth to Tai Shan, the first panda cub born at NZCBI to survive infancy, in July 2005. Bao Li’s mother, Bao Bao, was born in August 2013 and returned to China in February 2017.

Mei Xiang and Bao Bao, a female cub born in 2013
Bao Bao (pictured with her mother, Mei Xiang) is Bao Li's mother. National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

In August 2020, 22-year-old Mei Xiang gave birth to a healthy cub, becoming the oldest panda to do so in the U.S. The male soon received a fitting name: Xiao Qi Ji, which translates to “little miracle.” Stuck at home during the Covid-19 pandemic, viewers followed the cub’s every move virtually, tuning in to the Giant Panda Cam and reading keepers’ near-daily updates on his development.

His birth “certainly brought a lot of renewed attention and sparked a lot of joy,” Monfort told Smithsonian magazine in December 2020, when NZCBI announced a three-year extension of its loan agreement with the CWCA. Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and Xiao Qi Ji ultimately departed for China on November 8, 2023, just under a month before the agreement expired on December 7.

Whether Qing Bao and Bao Li will enjoy the same reproductive success as Mei Xiang and Tian Tian remains to be seen. But either way, the prospect of pandas returning to the capital is sure to fill a hole left in Washingtonians’ hearts by the species’ departure.

“Sometimes you really don’t know what you’re missing until it’s gone,” Colby Loucks, vice president for wildlife at the World Wildlife Fund, told the Washington Post last November. “But I think with the Zoo’s pandas, we know what we’re going to be missing. And we will miss them.”

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

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