San Diego Zoo Could Be First in U.S. to Get Pandas From China Again

Giant pandas from China could be arriving in the United States again soon, as Beijing is planning to continue its panda diplomacy with Western countries, according to a statement from the Chinese Embassy in the United States.

The China Wildlife Conservation Association reached agreements with the San Diego Zoo in California and the Madrid Zoo in Spain “on a new round of international giant panda conservation cooperation,” according to the statement.

The agreement would keep alive a more than five-decade old tradition of China lending pandas to American zoos in a gesture of friendly diplomacy between the two countries. The return of several pandas to China from the United States over the last several years had raised questions about whether the practice was ending.

China is also negotiating with the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and the Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna, Austria, according to the embassy’s statement.

“It’s always been our intention and hope to have giant pandas at the Zoo in the future and continue our research here and conservation work in China,” Dr. Brandie Smith, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, said in a statement. She added that the National Zoo was in discussion with the China Wildlife Conservation Association “to develop a future giant panda program.”

Dr. Megan Owen, the vice president of conservation science at the San Diego Zoo, said in a statement that the zoo was “taking important steps to ensure we are prepared for a potential return.”

The new round of what the Chinese Embassy called “cooperative research” will focus on controlling and preventing disease among giant pandas and more, according to the announcement.

The San Diego Zoo sent its last pandas back to China in 2019. And last April, the Memphis Zoo returned its female giant panda, Ya Ya. Animal welfare activists were alarmed by videos and photos of Ya Ya at the time, in which she had mangy fur and looked somewhat thin. Animal rights groups had campaigned for her release and had blamed the zoo for the death of Ya Ya’s mate, Le Le. The Memphis Zoo and Chinese officials denied any mistreatment.

Then, last November, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington sent its two aging adult pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, and their cub, Xiao Qi Ji, back to China on a 19-hour FedEx flight, the Panda Express.

That move spurred speculation that rising tensions between the American and Chinese governments were the reason behind the return of the pandas in Washington, but National Zoo officials and scientists said each of the three pandas was at an age when they should be returning to China.

The departure of the pandas made Atlanta the sole place in the United States where giant pandas (two adults and two babies) could be observed, although those bears were supposed to return to China sometime this year.

Panda diplomacy between the United States and China dates to the 1970s. It began after President Nixon made a landmark visit to China in 1972, normalizing relations between the two countries. Within two months, China had sent a female and male panda to the National Zoo. Those original pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, lived together at the zoo, producing five cubs, none of whom survived.

Zoos receiving pandas from China pay an annual fee to keep the animals, and generally do so for at least a few years. The zoos that have hosted the pandas in the United States over the decades negotiate their own contracts with conservation groups in China.

While the furry diplomats chew their bamboo, unaware of their geopolitical significance, critics have said that panda diplomacy has been used by China to soften its authoritarian image and divert attention away from its record of human rights abuses.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, hinted in a speech last fall that more giant pandas could be coming to American zoos. “We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation, and do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples,” Mr. Xi said at the time.

There are just over 1,860 pandas in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund, as the species remains vulnerable after being on the edge of extinction in the 1990s. They mostly live in temperate forests in the mountains of southwest China, where they subsist on bamboo, of which they need between 26 and 84 pounds a day.