China looks elsewhere after 50 years of National Zoo’s panda project

(CNN) – Three giant pandas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, DC, are seen plucking bamboo shoots and leaves, climbing branches, and generally looking adorable.

For the steady flow of visitors, this is the last chance to see Tian Tian, ​​Mei Xiang and their youngest cub, Xiao Gui Ji. Before the black and white bears return to China on Wednesday.

their departure Marking more than 50 years of Chinese pandas being housed at the zoo, it was the first American zoo to exhibit the bears in a move known as “panda diplomacy.”

Zoo staff call it a “hiatus” in their five-decade long wildly popular panda program; Chinese officials have not yet said whether this will continue.

And with relations between the two superpowers in a constant state of flux, these national treasures may find themselves part of an expanding diplomatic mess that has taken over the relationship between the two countries.

The The departure of pandas from the National Zoo makes Zoo Atlanta the only U.S. zoo to feature pandas from China, and not for long. The contracts for four of Atlanta’s Bears expire next year, with no word on an extension.


In this Feb. 21, 1972, file photo, Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, left, and U.S. President Richard Nixon shake hands as they meet in Beijing.

China admits that the cuddly creatures are used for its “important political and diplomatic needs”, especially where it wants to gain more influence or close ties. China says its focus is on defense and research and says the US program has been effective.

“The two sides have built good cooperative relations, achieved fruitful results and played a positive role in protecting endangered species,” said Mao Ning, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry.

“The aim is to better protect endangered species and improve global biodiversity conservation.”

Beijing’s panda diplomacy with Washington began in 1972 following President Richard Nixon’s visit to China.

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Chairman Mao Zedong’s government presented two giant pandas to the United States as a symbol of warming bilateral ties after decades of a deep diplomatic freeze.

First Lady Pat Nixon welcomed the pandas to the nation’s capital, saying “they will be entertained by the millions of people who come to the nation’s capital every year from all over the country.”

Seeing pandas grow in popularity among Americans, China shipped more Endearing and charming creatures It eventually lent them to other zoos across the United States, rather than giving them away as gifts.


First Lady Pat Nixon welcomes China’s giant pandas to Washington’s National Zoo on April 20, 1972. She was accompanied by Ding-Hung, head of the Public Service Bureau of Peking City, who accompanied the animals to Washington. In the enclosure is the male panda Hsing-Hsing.

Agreements between China and U.S. zoos require Beijing to own the pandas and any of their offspring and pay for the “conservation of giant pandas in China.” The National Zoo paid $500,000 a year; Zoo Atlanta says Contributed more than $16 million Since the inception of its program in 1999.

Ever since giant pandas arrived at the National Zoo in 1972, animal care staff and scientists have studied their biology, behavior, reproduction, reproduction and disease. According to the zoo.

“The zoo’s giant panda team works closely with colleagues in China to advance human care and conservation efforts for giant pandas in the wild,” the zoo says. Website.

At the program’s peak, there were 15 pandas in the U.S. at one time, but over the past decade, numbers have dwindled — partly because of worsening U.S.-China relations. Soon, there will be no more pandas in US zoos.

Earlier this year, videos surfaced on Chinese social media of pandas returned from the Memphis Zoo being abused. Fueled in part by Chinese state media, the claims went viral.

Chinese doctors have defended the zoo’s treatment of pandas, confirming that the giant panda, named YaYa, has skin disease but is in good health.

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But some in China still see China as a symbol of America’s bullying and oppression, while others highlight countries like Russia, which host the animals, as places where pandas are treated well.

Assuming China chooses not to send more giant pandas and Atlanta sends them next year, by the end of 2024 the only panda in zoos across the United States will be Xin Xin in Mexico City.


CNN’s David Culver, left, talks with Fernando Guadal Sil, director general of the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City.

Xin Xin — at 33 the oldest for a panda — is native to Mexico and a major attraction at the zoo, which is now encouraging a potential surge in visitors.

“Come to Mexico for now!” said Fernando Guadal Sil, director general of the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City. “We are lucky enough to see (a panda) in Mexico City and enjoy it!”

Pandas around the world

Pandas will act as a service as part of China’s credit program A messenger of friendship Between China and the host country, therefore, the blurred plan in the United States may represent a diplomatic shift.

China’s northern neighbor Russia received a pair of pandas in 2019, with Chinese President Xi Jinping welcoming the bears to a zoo in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Qatar received its first panda last year.

Steve Schaefer/AFP/Getty Images

Pandas Yang Yang, left, and Lun Lun play together at Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta in November 1999. They have since become the parents of seven giant panda cubs born at Zoo Atlanta, the zoo said.

23 countries, including the US, have pandas on loan from China, but that number is dwindling. Scotland will lose two of its pandas in December Edinburgh Zoo They should be sent back to China; of Australia Adelaide Zoo Its two pandas are only a year away.

Pandas that leave the United States go to the Chengdu research base for giant panda breeding, where conservation efforts have proven successful in recent years. Pandas are no longer on the endangered species list, and their population has risen nearly 17% in the past decade. According to Zoo Atlanta.

However, the total number of giant pandas in China – 1,864 in 2014, according to the most recent census – is considered low for breeding and maintaining a viable population. Only about 61% of China’s pandas are protected by reserves, and their habitat is threatened by logging in established forests, which removes large tree hollows that pandas prefer to use for dens. Zoo Atlanta says.

Will pandas ever return stateside?

Staff at the National Zoo say they hope China may one day send more giant pandas. They are also planning to renovate the soon-to-be vacant panda exhibit.

“We’re optimistic about the future, so we’ve submitted an application that will be reviewed,” said Bob Lee, director of animal care at the National Zoo.

Zoo Atlanta’s panda habitat It cost $7 million to build Before the Bears’ arrival in 1999, it would now stand empty, assuming the Bears were out at the end of their contract. Plans for ExhibitionNot obvious, with a welcome sign announcing “Giant Pandas of Chengdu” and a panda-themed gift shop.

Remembering how the pandas first came to Washington, zoo visitor Jane Mahalik said she hopes the current first lady can work for their return.

“Pat Nixon got the pandas here, and Jill Biden has to go and get these pandas back for us,” Mahalik told CNN.

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

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