INTERNATIONAL

China Wants To Rekindle Its Panda Diplomacy This Year By Sending More Pandas To The San Diego Zoo

“We’re very excited and hopeful,” said Vice President of Wildlife Conservation Science Megan Owen of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. “They’ve expressed a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to re-initiate panda cooperation starting with the San Diego Zoo.” In November, after his first in-person meeting with US President Joe Biden in Northern California, when they agreed to attempt to ease tensions, Chinese President Xi Jinping sparked expectations that his nation might begin exporting pandas to the US once again.

According to Owen, a panda behavior specialist who has worked in San Diego and China, China is contemplating a pair that includes a female descendant of Bai Yun and Gao Gao, two of the zoo’s past inmates.

Born into captivity in China, Bai Yun spent almost 20 years living in the zoo, giving birth to six cubs during that time. The last two pandas at the zoo, she and her son, left in 2019 and went back to China.

Gao Gao returned to his native China after spending the years 2003–2018 as a resident of the San Diego Zoo.

The giant panda species was on the verge of extinction until decades of research and conservation in captivity kept it alive. Today, there are over 1,800 of these animals in both the wild and in captivity.

Before bilateral ties normalized in 1972, Beijing sent two pandas to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. The black-and-white bears have long been associated with friendliness between the US and China. Later, in an effort to increase the number and aid in cub breeding, China leased pandas to zoos.

The people in China became more demanding for the repatriation of giant pandas, dubbed China’s “national treasure,” after unsubstantiated reports of the pandas’ mistreatment appeared on Chinese social media.

When zoos in Memphis, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C., repatriated their pandas to China last year, leaving only four pandas in the United States—all at the Atlanta zoo—fears about the future of so-called panda diplomacy intensified. Later this year, the lending deal ends.

A lot of loan contracts had a 10-year term, but they were often extended far beyond. However, talks to deploy additional pandas or prolong the agreements with US zoos last year ended in a deadlock. Observers of China conjectured that Beijing was progressively removing its pandas from Western countries because of the worsening diplomatic ties with the US and other nations.

Then, on November 15, 2023, a week after the pandas from the National Zoo left for China, Xi hinted that further pandas would be delivered when he talked to American business leaders at a banquet in downtown San Francisco. He claimed to have heard that Californians and the San Diego Zoo “very much look forward to welcoming pandas back.” “I was told that many American people, especially children, were really reluctant to say goodbye to the pandas and went to the zoo to see them off,” added Xi.

Even after it lost its panda population, the San Diego Zoo kept up its collaboration with its Chinese counterparts.

According to Owen, China is especially eager to share knowledge about the zoo’s successful panda breeding program. The fact that a female giant panda’s reproductive window is so short—only 48 to 72 hours a year—makes breeding them challenging.

Hua Mei, Bai Yun’s first child, became the first panda born via artificial insemination to live to maturity outside of China. After being returned to China, she went on to give birth to 12 more cubs on her own.

While everything was going on, Bai Yun stayed at the zoo and gave birth to three male and two more female children. Researchers kept an eye on her using cameras in her den, which helped them better understand how mothers behave while providing care, according to Owen.

“We have a lot of institutional knowledge and capacity from our last cooperative agreement, which we will be able to parlay into this next chapter, as well as training the next generation of panda conservationists,” she said.

According to Owen, Chinese specialists would visit San Diego for months at a time along with the bears.

She said that the giant panda’s resurgence as a species and San Diego both benefit from the bears’ return.

“We do talk about panda diplomacy all the time,” Owen said. In many different situations, diplomacy is an essential component of conservation. We will not succeed if we are unable to collaborate when faced with challenging circumstances or those that are entirely beyond the control of conservationists.

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