China to send pandas to San Diego Zoo

China plans to send a new pair of giant pandas to the San Diego Zoo after nearly all of the iconic bears on loan to the U.S. zoos were sent back as relations soured between the two nations.

By

World News

February 22, 2024 - 3:02 PM

Photo by Pixabay.com

SAN DIEGO (AP) — China plans to send a new pair of giant pandas to the San Diego Zoo, renewing its longstanding gesture of friendship toward the United States after nearly all the iconic bears on loan to U.S. zoos were sent back as relations soured between the two nations.

San Diego Zoo officials told The Associated Press that if all permits and other requirements are approved, two bears, a male and a female, are expected to arrive by the end of summer, about five years after the zoo sent its last pandas back to China.

“We’re very excited and hopeful,” said Megan Owen of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and vice president of Wildlife Conservation Science. “They’ve expressed a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to re-initiate panda cooperation starting with the San Diego Zoo.”

The China Wildlife Conservation Association said Thursday it also signed cooperation agreements with the zoo in the Spanish capital of Madrid, and is in talks with zoos in Washington, D.C., and Vienna.

The partnership will include research on disease prevention and habitat protection, and contribute to China’s national panda park construction, the organization said.

“We look forward to further expanding the research outcomes on the conservation of endangered species such as giant pandas, and promoting mutual understanding and friendship among peoples through the new round of international cooperation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said in Beijing.

Fears over the future of so-called panda diplomacy escalated last year when the zoos in Washington, D.C., and Memphis, Tennessee, 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.

But in November, Chinese President Xi Jinping raised hopes his country would start sending pandas to the U.S. again after he and President Joe Biden convened in Northern California for their first face-to-face meeting in a year and pledged to try to reduce tensions.

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, an expert in panda behavior who has worked in San Diego and China.

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.

Decades of conservation efforts in the wild and study in captivity saved the giant panda species from extinction, increasing its population from fewer than 1,000 at one time to more than 1,800 in the wild and captivity.

The black-and-white bears have long been the symbol of the U.S.-China friendship since Beijing gifted a pair of pandas to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., in 1972, ahead of the normalization of bilateral relations. China later loaned pandas to zoos to help breed cubs and boost the population.

Zoos typically pay a fee of $1 million a year for two pandas, with the money earmarked for China’s conservation efforts, according to a 2022 report by America’s Congressional Research Service.

The U.S., Spain and Austria were among the first countries to work with China on panda conservation, and 28 pandas have been born in those countries, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said.

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