The National Zoo’s pandas have departed for China
Image c/o Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press
On Wednesday, November 8, the National Zoo bid farewell to their giant pandas Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and their 3-year-old cub Xiao Qi Ji. As the zoo held a nine-day “panda-palooza” to commemorate its decades-long panda conservation program, hundreds of fans came to say goodbye to Washington, D.C.’s panda family. “It felt amazing,” exclaimed 10-year-old Kelsey Lambert, who traveled from San Antonio with her mother to catch a final glimpse of the bears, “My mom always promised she would take me one day. So we had to do it now that they're going away.” The National Zoo’s pandas are just the latest departures from American zoos, following the Memphis Zoo and San Diego Zoo’s return of their pandas to China in recent years. After the three pandas arrived in Chengdu, only four pandas now remain in the U.S., at the Atlanta Zoo. But why? How come U.S. zoos are suddenly losing their pandas?
The answer lies in the tricky relationship between the United States and China, with rising tensions causing speculation that this gradual pullback of pandas is a sort of diplomatic “deep freeze” from the Chinese government. Dennis Wilder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Initiative for US-China Dialogue on Global Issues, suggests this response is a possible punitive measure for a variety of recent developments, ranging from U.S. sanctions on China’s officials to American restrictions on the import of Chinese semiconductors. In an interview with the Associated Press, Wilder claims that Chinese officials suspect a growing animosity between themselves and NATO-affiliated countries and allies, hence the ongoing rollbacks on panda loan contracts in not only the U.S. but in Scotland and Australia as well. Things came to a head with the death of Le Le, a panda on loan at the Memphis Zoo, at the age of 25. Due to the average panda’s lifespan reaching up to 30 years old in captivity, the unexpected death incited an explosion of allegations on Chinese social media platforms that claimed the Memphis Zoo mistreated Le Le and his female partner Ya Ya. This controversy ensued even after an inspection by a Chinese medical team confirmed Le Le’s natural death due to a heart condition and was only quelled after Ya Ya’s return to China after her loan contract expired in April of this year.
The practice of China loaning giant pandas to the U.S. began in 1972 during President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China. First Lady Patricia Nixon recalled growing quite fond of the bears during a dinner exchange with Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai, who would agree to lend the National Zoo two pandas as a form of goodwill. Two months after the visit, pandas Ling Ling and Hsing-Hsing arrived in Washington, D.C., and the diplomatic tradition has continued ever since. In the meantime, the National Zoo remains hopeful that future pandas will one day return to their care, even sending an application that is currently being reviewed. As for Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and Xiao Qi Ji, many view this as inevitable and simply their time to go as the two adult bears reach old age. “They are at the age when they should be in China,” said conservation biologist Melissa Songer, “I don’t want to have a panda pass away outside of China.” While the future of American zoos hosting giant pandas remains unclear, the National Zoo’s panda family has settled into their new home at the Wolong Giant Panda Reserve.
The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/08/us/politics/panda-zoo-china.html
PBS Newshour: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/national-zoos-giant-pandas-to-return-to-china-in-december-leaving-only-a-handful-in-america
Richard Nixon Foundation: https://www.nixonfoundation.org/2011/02/pat-nixon-and-panda-diplomacy/
Madison Sciba '24,