Sign of a US-China Thaw: a New Panda Promise

China plans to send 2 new pandas to the San Diego Zoo
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 22, 2024 9:30 AM CST
San Diego Zoo's Panda Drought Will End
Hua Mei, then a baby panda at the San Diego Zoo, peeks over a branch while enjoying a bamboo breakfast on Aug. 15, 2000, in San Diego.   (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi, file)

China plans to send a new pair of giant pandas to the San Diego Zoo, renewing its long-standing gesture of friendship toward the United States after nearly all the iconic bears on loan to US zoos were returned as relations began to sour between the two nations. San Diego Zoo officials told the AP that if all permits and other requirements are approved, two bears, a male and a female, are expected to arrive as early as the end of this summer, about five years after the zoo sent its last pandas back to China. What you need to know:

  • Political context: In November, Chinese President Xi Jinping raised hopes his country would start sending pandas to the US again after he and President Biden convened in Northern California for their first face-to-face meeting in a year and pledged to try to reduce tensions.
  • Where did all the pandas go? Demands for the return of giant pandas, known as China's "national treasure," grew among the Chinese public as unproven allegations that US zoos mistreated the pandas flooded Chinese social media. Fears over the future of so-called panda diplomacy escalated last year when zoos in Memphis, Tennessee, and Washington, DC, returned their pandas to China, leaving only four pandas in the United States, all at the zoo in Atlanta. That loan agreement expires later this year.

  • The zoo's perspective: "We're very excited and hopeful," said Megan Owen of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. "They've expressed a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to reinitiate panda cooperation, starting with the San Diego Zoo."
  • The pandas: China is considering a pair that includes a female descendent of Bai Yun and Gao Gao, two of the zoo's former residents, said Owen. Bai Yun, who was born in captivity in China, lived at the zoo for more than 20 years and gave birth to six cubs there. She and her son were the zoo's last pandas and returned to China in 2019. Gao Gao was born in the wild in China and lived at the San Diego Zoo from 2003 to 2018 before being sent back. Chinese experts would travel with the bears and spend months in San Diego, Owen said.
  • Trivia: The black-and-white bears have long been a symbol of the US-China friendship: Beijing gifted a pair of pandas to the National Zoo in Washington, DC, in 1972, ahead of the normalization of bilateral relations. China later loaned pandas to zoos to help breed cubs and boost the population. Many loan agreements were for 10 years and often were extended well beyond.
(More giant pandas stories.)

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