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Giant Pandas to Resume Presence in United States Zoos

Three months following the repatriation of the National Zoo's giant panda family to China, zoos in the United States will again have giant pandas under their care.

By Jenna DeedyPublished 2 months ago 4 min read
Giant Pandas to Resume Presence in United States Zoos
Photo by Lukas W. on Unsplash

In November 2023, the prestigious National Zoo returned its three remaining giant panda residents to their ancestral home in China, marking the end of a five-decade-long legacy. Atlanta's Zoo is now the only American institution to house a giant panda family, but this loan is expected to conclude within the year, requiring the return of the four endangered bears to China. This would be the first time since 1972 that no American zoo has housed giant pandas, signaling a turning point in panda diplomacy.

In a significant development, the Wildlife Conservation Association of China and the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., announced their collaboration on February 22, 2024, after initial discussions began just three months prior. This strategic partnership aims to facilitate the return of more giant pandas to the National Zoo, fostering enhanced diplomatic relations between the United States and China. The collaboration marks a new era of international cooperation in the conservation of giant pandas and their habitats. Prominent institutions in China, including the Madrid Zoo in Spain and the San Diego Zoo in California, have already entered similar agreements, signaling a renewed phase of panda diplomacy. Additionally, discussions are underway with Austria's Vienna Zoo to establish a new giant panda program.

Historically, China's goodwill gestures to zoos in the Western Hemisphere included sending giant pandas as symbols of friendship and facilitating diplomatic ties. In the 1980s, rising global concern for giant panda welfare prompted the Chinese government to start the "rent-a-panda" program, loaning a few bears for short-term exhibitions to raise funds for conservation efforts back home. Notably, during the 1984 Olympics, the Los Angeles Zoo, which hosted pandas, paid $300,000 per bear for their six-month stay.

In response to financial concerns surrounding the lease programs, the Chinese government shifted to a long-term loan program in the 1990s. Breeding pairs of giant pandas were sent to zoos for 10 to 12 years, requiring zoos to engage in collaborative research, including breeding the bears, conducting studies, and devising strategies for their preservation in the wild. The annual lease fee was set at $1 million, and offspring born to the pair would be repatriated to China at three or four years old to take part in the national panda breeding program.

Following a devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008, loan extensions were granted, mainly to countries with trade agreements or resource-sharing arrangements with China. These extensions aimed to mitigate the effects of the earthquake, which damaged facilities and caused the relocation of 60 animals to different locations within the country.

The exchange of pandas, known as panda diplomacy, plays a vital role in fostering cooperation between the United States and China in various fields of scientific research, including the protection of giant pandas and other endangered species. This initiative also strengthens people-to-people ties by encouraging environmental conservation and cultural exchange.

The San Diego Zoo was carefully chosen as the initial home for the pandas in the United States because of its history of providing exceptional care for pandas, having been without them for a longer period than Washington, D.C., and its reputation for successful breeding. The zoo's commitment to panda conservation is well-known and acknowledged. It also maintains a presence on Facebook, where it shares updates and connects with the public.

California's policies also influenced the decision to house the pandas at the San Diego Zoo, as the state has engaged with China under Governor Gavin Newsom's leadership.

“We’re excited to share this update with our social media community: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance has applied for a CITES conservation permit caring for giant pandas. For nearly 30 years, we’ve had the honor of working alongside our Chinese conservation partners to save, protect, and care for giant pandas. Through these efforts, we developed critical discoveries that play a meaningful role in bringing this beloved species back from the brink of extinction.

Our collaboration resulted in critical scientific findings on panda reproductive behavior and physiology, nutritional and care requirements, ecosystem needs, and genetics. While giant pandas are recovering, factors like climate change, changing land use practices, and population isolation still threaten their wild populations.

Through the next generation of giant pandas, we hope to further expand our conservation partnership to improve panda populations—especially those in isolated areas where they’re vulnerable to extinction and loss of genetic diversity. Conservation is at the heart of everything we do, and we hope to share the wonder of giant pandas with you again soon.”

----San Diego Zoo's Facebook page

The Giant Pandas' anticipated arrival at the San Diego Zoo is slated for the latter part of this year, because of renovations to their habitat. These improvements aim to create an environment that caters to the pandas' needs. The significance of San Diego being the first US zoo to house a new pair of giant pandas in panda diplomacy cannot be underestimated. This endeavor serves multiple purposes, including supporting the conservation of endangered species, strengthening US-China relations, and aiding in the restoration of their natural habitats threatened by climate change and deforestation. We hope this marks a new era in giant panda conservation.

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About the Creator

Jenna Deedy

Zoo and Aquarium Professional, Educator, Cosplayer, Writer and B.A. in Psychology whose got a lot to share when it comes to animals, zoos, aquariums, conservation, and more.

Instagram: @jennacostadeedy

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