The National Zoo’s giant pandas needn’t pack their bags.
Through an agreement signed today, the much-loved animals will continue to delight visitors for another three years, through December 7, 2023. “We’re all very excited,” says Steve Monfort, the director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. “It’s very, very good that we can continue our collaboration with our Chinese counterparts.”
The extension agreement with the China Wildlife and Conservation Association comes with the promise of a $3 million gift to the Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute provided by benefactor David M. Rubenstein, co-founder and co-CEO of the Carlyle Group and a member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents. It brings to $12 million the amount Rubenstein has donated to fund giant panda research and conservation.
“Supporting the Zoo’s giant panda conservation program is very rewarding,” Rubenstein said in a release. “Giant pandas are an incredible species that still need our help.”
The female giant panda Mei Xiang (pronounced may-SHONG) and male Tian Tian (tee-YEN tee-YEN), will return to China at the end of 2023 at the relatively elder panda ages of 25 and 26, respectively. The estimated lifespan for giant pandas is about 15 to 20 years in the wild, and about 30 years in captivity.
Likely to travel with the two is the celebrated newest addition to the Zoo’s panda family, cub Xiao Qui Ji (SHIAU-chi-ji), who was born August 21, 2020—a doubtless bright spot in a year with few of them. The 15-week-old male cub is the fourth of Mei Xiang’s four surviving cubs, all sired by Tian Tian.
By long-standing agreement, cubs born in captivity at the Zoo are sent to China before the age of four. Tai Shan left in 2010, Bao Bao in 2017 and Bei Bei last year. When Xiao Qi Ji, whose name means “little miracle,” was born, his mother Mei Xiang, at 22, became the oldest giant panda to give birth in North America.
“That certainly brought a lot of renewed attention and sparked a lot of joy,” Monfort says.
The public has yet to see Xiao Qui Ji in person because the Zoo’s David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat was closed to facilitate the pregnancy while the Zoo was open. (The Zoo along with other Smithsonian museums closed November 23, due to a recent surge in local and national Covid-19 cases.)
Normally, it would be at about this time, a little over 100 days, that a cub would be able to be shared with the public. Instead, an excess of 1.6 million people have tuned into the Zoo’s Panda Cam since the August birth, with a total of 8.8 million page views. Just this week, his parents, Mei Xiang, whose name means “beautiful fragrance,” and Tian Tian, meaning “more and more,” marked 20 years in Washington, D.C., having arrived at the Zoo Dec. 6, 2000.
The extension agreement means that the National Zoo and China will reach a half century of conservation and cooperation between the U.S. and China. “It’s incredible,” says Monfort. Though he adds, “it shouldn’t be surprising to people that professionals working in conservation or a scientific field, that collaboration is the foundation of the way that one does the work. “It’s all built into our DNA,” he says. “In conserving species, we know that no one organization, no one entity, and often not even one government can theoretically save a species without partnership.”
Zoos were not nearly as knowledgeable or sophisticated when the creatures first came to the U.S. 48 years ago, Monfort says. It was in February 1972 when, at a historic dinner in Beijing, First Lady Patricia Nixon mentioned her fondness for giant pandas to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, who quickly replied: “I’ll give you some.”
Two months later, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing arrived in Washington D.C., and over the next two decades produced five cubs but none survived. (Ling-Ling died in 1992; Hsing-Sing in 1999).
In addition to drawing millions of excited visitors to the Zoo over the years, the giant pandas provided an opportunity to study the animal’s behavior, health and reproduction. As a result, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, headquartered in Front Royal, Virginia, became a leader in giant panda estrus, breeding, pregnancy, pseudopregnancy and cub development. “We could not have been successful with the knowledge and training shared by our Chinese colleagues,” Monfort says. “I believe that our contributions to their understanding have also been significant. We’ve shared with them everything we’ve learned, and all the techniques that we understand and know ultimately, and they’ve shared with us too. So I believe that we all share in the success.”
The collaboration with China is a symbol of hope, Monfort says. “It’s a symbol of what partnership can achieve when people come together and commit to doing something hard but they’re willing to put in whatever it takes and do it for whatever time frame it takes.”
The International Union for Conservation of Nature changed the status of giant pandas from endangered to threatened in 2016, noting a 17 percent rise in the population in the decade from 2004 to 2014 when a nationwide census found 1,864 giant pandas in China.
The National Zoo is one of only three zoos in the U.S. with giant pandas. The other two are Zoo Atlanta and the Memphis Zoo. About 600 giant pandas live in captivity; in China, the 1,864 giant pandas live in scattered populations mostly in Sichuan Province in central China, but also in Gansu and Shaanxi provinces.
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute ecologists spend months in China each year to study wild pandas and their neighbors, the Asiatic black bear and takin, working with Chinese colleagues to identify new landscapes for giant panda reintroduction.
Chinese scientists visit the National Zoo as well, and are usually invited when a new cub is imminent, though that wasn’t possible this year due to the pandemic.
While the first pair of giant pandas in Washington were a gift, the arrival of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian in 2000 were a loan from China, provided in exchange for funds and expertise toward Chinese conservation efforts. After an initial 10-year, $10 million agreement, the accord was extended twice for additional five years each time. The latest agreement, signed in 2015, was to have expired today.
When the current stars of the Zoo leave for China in three years, Monfort says he has every hope another pair of giant pandas will be loaned. “Our hope is going to be having pandas at the Zoo for decades to come.”