The Nationwide Zoo’s panda program is ending after greater than 50 years as China seems elsewhere


(CNN) – The three big pandas tumble round of their enclosure on the Smithsonian Nationwide Zoo in Washington, DC, munching on bamboo shoots and leaves, climbing branches and usually trying cute.

For the regular stream of guests, it’s their final probability to see Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and their youngest cub, Xiao Qi Ji, earlier than the black-and-white bears head again to China on Wednesday.

Their departure marks the tip of greater than 50 years of Chinese language pandas being housed on the zoo, which was the primary US zoo to showcase the bears as a part of what’s been referred to as “panda diplomacy.”

Zoo employees name it a “hiatus” of their five-decade wildly well-liked panda program; Chinese language officers have but to say whether or not it should proceed.

And with relations between the 2 superpowers in a relentless state of flux, these nationwide treasures could also be discovering themselves a part of the extension of the diplomatic chaos that has taken over the connection between the 2 nations.

The pandas’ departure from the Nationwide Zoo leaves Zoo Atlanta as the one different US zoo to function pandas from China, and never for for much longer. The contracts for Atlanta’s 4 bears expire subsequent yr, with no phrase on an extension.


On this February 21, 1972, file photograph, Chinese language communist occasion chief Mao Zedong, left, and US President Richard Nixon shake fingers as they meet in Beijing.

China acknowledges the cuddly creatures are used for its “main political and diplomatic wants,” particularly in locations the place it hopes to achieve extra affect or nearer relations. China says its focus is on conservation and analysis and says the US program has been productive.

“The 2 sides have fashioned good cooperative relations, achieved fruitful outcomes and performed a constructive position in defending endangered species,” mentioned spokesperson Mao Ning of China’s Ministry of International Affairs.

“The aim is to higher shield endangered species and promote world biodiversity conservation.”

Beijing’s panda diplomacy with Washington kicked off in 1972, following President Richard Nixon’s historic go to to China.

Chairman Mao Zedong’s authorities gave two big pandas to the US in an indication of warming bilateral ties after many years of diplomatic deep freeze.

First woman Pat Nixon welcomed the pandas to the nation’s capital, saying, “They are going to be loved by the thousands and thousands of people that come from throughout the nation to go to the nation’s capital annually.”

Seeing the pandas’ recognition rise amongst People, China despatched extra of the cuddly and charismatic creatures to different zoos throughout the US, finally loaning them as an alternative of giving them as a present.


First woman Pat Nixon welcomes China’s big pandas on April 20, 1972, at Washington’s Nationwide Zoo. Along with her is Ting-Hung, head of the Bureau of Public Service of the Metropolis of Peking, who accompanied the animals to Washington. Within the enclosure is male panda Hsing-Hsing.

Agreements between China and the US zoos stipulate Beijing owns the pandas and any of their offspring, and so they require fee “for the conservation of big pandas in China.” The Nationwide Zoo has paid $500,000 a yr; Zoo Atlanta says it has contributed more than $16 million because the begin of its program in 1999.

Since big pandas arrived on the Nationwide Zoo in 1972, animal care employees and scientists have studied their biology, conduct, breeding, replica and illness, according to the zoo.

“The Zoo’s big panda staff works intently with colleagues in China to advance conservation efforts for big pandas in human care and within the wild,” the zoo says on its website.

On the peak of this system, there have been 15 pandas at one time in the US, however prior to now decade, the numbers have dropped – coinciding with worsening US-China relations. And shortly, there might be no extra pandas at American zoos.

Earlier this yr, movies surfaced on Chinese language social media claiming pandas getting back from the Memphis Zoo have been being abused. Partially fueled by Chinese language state media, the claims went viral.

Chinese language medical doctors defended the zoo’s therapy of the pandas, confirming that the large panda, named YaYa, was affected by a pores and skin illness, however was in good well being.

However some in China nonetheless see it as a logo of America’s bullying and oppression of China, with others highlighting nations equivalent to Russia, which additionally hosts the animals, as a spot the place pandas are handled effectively.

Assuming China chooses to not ship over extra big pandas, and Atlanta sends theirs again subsequent yr, by the tip of 2024 the one panda in zoos all through the entire Americas can be Xin Xin in Mexico Metropolis.


CNN’s David Culver, left, speaks with Fernando Gual Sill, director common of the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico Metropolis.

Xin Xin – who at 33 is outdated for a panda – is owned by Mexico and is a predominant attraction on the zoo, which is now bracing for a potential surge in guests.

“In the meanwhile, come to Mexico!” mentioned Fernando Gual Sill, director common of the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico Metropolis. “In Mexico Metropolis we’ve got the fortune to have (a panda) and to see it and to take pleasure in it!”

Pandas world wide

Pandas which are a part of China’s mortgage program are supposed to function an envoy of friendship between China and the host nation, so the fading program in the US might point out a diplomatic shift.

Russia, China’s northern neighbor, obtained a pair of pandas in 2019, with Chinese language President Xi Jinping standing alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin as they welcomed the bears to the zoo in Moscow.

Qatar obtained its first panda final yr.

Steve Schaefer/AFP/Getty Pictures

Pandas Yang Yang, left, and Lun Lun play collectively at Zoo Atlanta in November 1999. They’ve since turn out to be the mother and father of seven big panda cubs born at Zoo Atlanta, in response to the zoo.

Together with the US, 23 nations have pandas on mortgage from China, however that quantity is dwindling. Scotland will lose its two pandas in December when the Edinburgh Zoo should return them to China; Australia’s Adelaide Zoo has its two pandas just for yet another yr.

The pandas leaving America will head to the Chengdu Analysis Base of Large Panda Breeding, the place in recent times conservation efforts have confirmed profitable. Pandas are now not on the endangered species listing, and their inhabitants has jumped almost 17% over the previous decade, according to Zoo Atlanta.

Nonetheless, the entire variety of big pandas in China – 1,864 as of the most recent census, in 2014 – is taken into account low for breeding and sustaining a viable inhabitants. Solely round 61% of China’s pandas are protected by reserves, and their habitat is threatened by logging in established forests, which eliminates the big tree hollows pandas like to make use of for dens, Zoo Atlanta says.

Will the pandas ever return stateside?

Employees on the Nationwide Zoo say they’re hopeful China would possibly sooner or later ship over extra big pandas. They’re even planning renovations for the soon-to-be vacant panda exhibit.

“We’re eager for the longer term, so we’ve got submitted an software that’s being reviewed,” mentioned Bob Lee, director of animal care on the Nationwide Zoo.

Zoo Atlanta’s panda habitat cost $7 million to build forward of the bears’ arrival in 1999, and assuming the bears depart on the finish of their contracted keep, it should now stand empty. Plans for the exhibit, with a welcome signal asserting the “Large Pandas of Chengdu” and a panda-themed reward store, aren’t clear.

Remembering how the pandas first got here to Washington, zoo customer Jane Mahalik mentioned she hoped the present first woman would possibly work for his or her return.

“Pat Nixon acquired the pandas right here,” Mahalik instructed CNN, “and Jill Biden ought to go and get these pandas again for us.”

CNN’s Yong Xiong reported from Washington, DC, and New York; Melissa Grey reported from Atlanta; and David Culver reported from Los Angeles and Mexico Metropolis.

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