DC to Lose Famous Trio Due to 'Punitive Panda Diplomacy'

Amid strained relations with China, it's not clear if deal for pandas struck by Nixon will be renewed
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 3, 2023 8:35 AM CDT
DC's Famous Panda Trio Will Soon Head Back to China
Giant panda Tian Tian roams in his enclosure at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, DC, on Thursday.   (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The National Zoo's three giant pandas—Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and their cub Xiao Qi Ji—are set to return to China in early December, with no public signs that the 50-year-old exchange agreement struck by former President Nixon will continue, reports the AP. National Zoo officials have remained tight-lipped about the prospects of renewing or extending the agreement, and repeated attempts to gain comment on the state of the negotiations didn't receive a response. However, the public stance of the zoo has been decidedly pessimistic, treating these remaining months as the end of an era. The zoo just finished a weeklong celebration called "Panda Palooza: A Giant Farewell."

The potential end of the National Zoo's panda era comes amid what veteran China-watchers say is a larger trend. With diplomatic tensions running high between Beijing and a number of Western governments, China appears to be gradually pulling back its pandas from multiple Western zoos as their agreements expire. Dennis Wilder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Initiative for US-China Dialogue on Global Issues, called the trend "punitive panda diplomacy," noting that two other American zoos have lost their pandas in recent years, while zoos in Scotland and Australia are facing similar departures, with no signs of their loan agreements being renewed. Beijing currently lends out 65 pandas to 19 countries through "cooperative research programs," with a stated mission to better protect the vulnerable species.

The Chinese government, which gifted the first pair of pandas—Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling—to the US, now leases the pandas out for a typical 10-year renewable term. The annual fee ranges from $1 million to $2 million per pair, plus mandatory costs to build and maintain facilities to house the animals. Any cub born to the pandas belongs to the Chinese government but can be leased for an additional fee until it reaches mating age. The pandas return to China when they reach old age, and any cubs born are sent to China around age 3 or 4. The San Diego Zoo returned its pandas in 2019, and the last bear at the zoo in Memphis, Tennessee, went home earlier this year. The departure of the National Zoo's bears would mean that the only giant pandas left in America are at Zoo Atlanta—and that loan agreement expires late next year.

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Wilder said the Chinese possibly could be "trying to send a signal." He cited a litany of Chinese-American flashpoints: sanctions imposed by the US government on prominent Chinese citizens and officials; restrictions on the import of Chinese semiconductors; accusations that Chinese-made fentanyl is flooding American cities; suspicion over Chinese ownership of the social media platform TikTok; and the uproar early this year over the Chinese balloon floating over America. Observers are holding out hope for an 11th-hour high-level intervention. Xie Feng, the Chinese ambassador to the US, has sounded semi-optimistic in his public statements. "I will do my utmost to do that, and here, in Aspen, there also will be [pandas]," Xie said during the Aspen Security Forum in July in Aspen, Colorado. Much more here.

(More pandas stories.)

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