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Giant Pandas are returning to D.C.'s National Zoo

Giant Panda Tian Tian rests in its enclosure at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 7, 2023, on the final day of viewing before returning to China. All three of the zoo's pandas left for China, bringing at least a temporary end to a decades-old connection between the cuddly animal and the U.S. capital.
Jim Watson
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AFP via Getty Images
Giant Panda Tian Tian rests in its enclosure at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 7, 2023, on the final day of viewing before returning to China. All three of the zoo's pandas left for China, bringing at least a temporary end to a decades-old connection between the cuddly animal and the U.S. capital.

Giant pandas have been one of the biggest attractions at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., ever since the first pair arrived in 1972 -- a historic token of friendship from communist China.

Now, National Zoo officials say D.C. will get two new adolescent pandas by the end of the year. The last bears departed in November, bound for China on a FedEx cargo plane, with no agreement in place to secure a new pair.

“We're beyond thrilled,” says Brandie Smith, director of the National Zoo. “The first time I walked through the panda house after the pandas had left, that was a really sad moment. But then we immediately turned our eyes toward the future.”

China has a monopoly on one of the cutest creatures in the animal kingdom -- the native range of giant pandas is entirely within the country’s borders. Today, there are roughly 2,000 of the animals lumbering around the bamboo-filled mountains of south central China.

For decades, the Chinese government has gifted or loaned pandas to zoos around the world. It’s a practice that’s been called “panda diplomacy,” and it often coincides with trade deals or other diplomatic events. But as relations have soured in recent years between China and the U.S., China stopped renewing panda loans to U.S. zoos. Atlanta is currently the last zoo in the country to have giant pandas, and they are set to return to China.

Asked whether international relations were at play in the D.C. panda negotiations, Smith said she couldn’t comment. “That's not really my area of expertise,” she says.

The San Diego Zoo is also set to get a new pair of pandas sometime soon, but no date has been announced.

The 2-year-old bears heading to D.C. are named Bao Li and Qing Bao. Both were born at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Sichuan. Bao Li has D.C. roots, though: His mother, Bao Bao, was born at the National Zoo in 2013 and was a local celebrity before being sent to China in 2017. Bao Li’s grandparents, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, lived at the National Zoo for 23 years before being returned to China last year.

Male giant panda Xiao Qi Ji walks around his enclosure at the Smithsonian National Zoo on Sept. 23, 2023 in Washington, D.C.
Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Male giant panda Xiao Qi Ji walks around his enclosure at the Smithsonian National Zoo on Sept. 23, 2023 in Washington, D.C.

“We need that panda!”

Mariel Lally, one of the zoo’s panda keepers, traveled with the bears in the FedEx cargo plane last year on their flight back to China. While there, she happened to see Bao Li and immediately noted a resemblance with his grandfather, Tian Tian.

“We were just falling on the floor, we just couldn't believe how adorable he was. We just kept saying, we need that panda, we need him,” Lally says. “We had no idea it would come to pass.”

At age 2, pandas are considered “sub-adults,” Lally says, comparable to the teenage years in a human lifespan.

“They're going to be a little cub-like, still really playful, and want to spend a lot of time in the trees playing with toys,” Lally says.

The new panda loan comes with terms similar to previous agreements. The loan has a term of 10 years, though previous loans have often been extended. Any cubs born to the pair will belong to China and must be sent back upon turning 4 years old. The National Zoo will pay $1 million a year to the China Wildlife and Conservation Association in exchange for the pandas, funds that are intended to support research and conservation efforts.

After decades of international efforts to breed pandas and restore habitat, the animals are no longer considered endangered. Giant pandas are now listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Chinese environmental officials.

At the National Zoo, federal funding covers basic expenses like food and medicine for animals, but it doesn't pay for the panda loan fee or cover the full cost of the panda program. The program has an annual budget of $2.8 million, including the fee. About three-quarters of that budget is funded by donations, zoo memberships and other sales.

About 2 million people visit the National Zoo annually, and for many, the giant pandas have been the first and favorite stop. Smith says there hasn’t been a noticeable decline in visitors since the last pandas departed, but it’s hard to tell because the zoo’s busy season is just now ramping up. And, she says, there are plenty of other animals to see.

“We know our visitors might come for the pandas, but they stay here for everything else,” Smith says.

While the panda habitat has been empty, the zoo has taken the opportunity to upgrade the building and outdoor space. Crews are currently at work building new fences, larger indoor and outdoor platforms, and ponds.

“We want to make sure whatever we put in is going to be sturdy, especially with two young mischievous pandas that are probably going to try to take the whole place apart,” Lally says.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jacob Fenston
[Copyright 2024 WAMU 88.5]