Panda diplomacy no more: China calls back its pandas from U.S. zoos

(Drew Fellman/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

The pandas are going home to China. A nine-day “Panda Palooza” to celebrate the bears before they leave is underway at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

The pandas will be returned to Chinese conservationists by December 7. The pandas have been on loan from them and the cost of the agreement with the National Zoo is about $1 million per year since 2000. It’s China’s global soft and fuzzy outreach – panda diplomacy. The panda cubs born in Washington go back to China, too. Perhaps now is when the separation is being called because of the tension in the relationship between China and the U.S. There are pandas on loan to zoos around the United States and they will all go back to China.


This leaves zoos scrambling to fill the gap that will be left by an absence of the giant pandas. Many zoo visitors come specifically to see the giant pandas.

A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington said teams from the U.S. and China were in talks about future work on giant panda conservation and research.

David Rubenstein, the billionaire co-founder of the Carlyle Group, has donated millions to support the pandas, endowing the zoo’s panda habitat. He thinks an agreement for new pandas would be good for the zoo—and for geopolitical stability.

“It’s not overnight going to resolve all U.S.-China problems but it would obviously be one less issue to be dealt with,” he said in an interview.

We can thank then-First Lady Patricia Nixon for the arrival of panda bears in America.

Pandas first arrived at the National Zoo during a fuzzier period in great power relations. Traveling with her husband in China in 1972, then-First Lady Patricia Nixon was taken with the pandas at the Beijing zoo. Zhou Enlai, then the premier of China, promised her “I’ll give you some,” and in return for two pandas, the U.S. gifted China two musk oxen, launching one of the most consequential trading relationships in the world.

The Nixon administration selected Washington to host the original pair of bears, named Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling. “I think panda-monium is going to break out right here at the zoo,” Mrs. Nixon said upon their arrival.


The relationship between the United States and China is tense. Pandas at other zoos in the United States are being sent home, too. Three cubs previously born on U.S. soil, products of artificial insemination, have already been sent back to China. Other pandas at other zoos around the U.S. have also recently been sent home. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) has legislation to keep panda cubs born in the United States here.

It looks like the pandas will be sent back to China via FedEx. A logistics company will provide a plane to transport the three pandas at the National Zoo. It’s a 16-hour flight. A veterinarian and the animals’ handlers will accompany them on the flight. “As long as they have bamboo,” said Michael Brown-Palsgrove, the zoo’s curator of giant pandas, “they actually do really pretty well on a trip like that.”

During the days of “Panda Palooza”, the Chinese Embassy in Washington will provide panda-themed film screenings, concerts, lectures, yoga, arts and crafts activities, and “tasty celebratory treats.”

The zoo is operated by the Smithsonian Institute so it receives federal funding. It will be forced to close to the public if a government shutdown happens. That would cut a day off the panda celebration activities. And, the popular “Panda Cam” would go dark.


Initially, the pandas were under a cooperative research and breeding agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association. Arriving in 2000, that meant the original agreement was up in 2010. The agreement has been renewed three times since 2010.

It hasn’t been announced if the zoo will seek to acquire more pandas in the future.

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