NATIONAL NEWS

2 new giant pandas are returning to Washington’s National Zoo from China by the end of the year

May 29, 2024, 8:16 AM

FILE: Giant panda cub Bei Bei (L) plays with his mother Mei Xiang (R) at the David M.  Rubenstein F...

FILE: Giant panda cub Bei Bei (L) plays with his mother Mei Xiang (R) at the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park August 22, 2016 in Washington, DC. The youngest giant panda cub turns one today. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Two giant pandas are coming to Washington’s National Zoo from China by the end of the year.

The zoo made the announcement Wednesday, about half a year after it sent its three pandas back to China. The number of pandas in American zoos has steadily dwindled as loan agreements lapsed during diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and China that remain high over economic relations, technology, trade, Taiwan and even a spy balloon.

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute said the pair of pandas are Bao Li (pronounced BOW’-lee) and Qing Bao (ching-BOW’). Giant pandas are icons in Washington, D.C., and beloved around the nation and the world. For more than five decades, the institute has created and maintained one of the world’s foremost giant panda conservation programs, helping move the panda from “endangered” to “vulnerable” on the global list of species at risk of extinction.

“We’re thrilled to announce the next chapter of our breeding and conservation partnership begins by welcoming two new bears, including a descendent of our beloved panda family, to Washington, D.C.,” said Brandie Smith, the zoo’s director. “This historic moment is proof positive our collaboration with Chinese colleagues has made an irrefutable impact. Through this partnership, we have grown the panda population, advanced our shared understanding of how to care for this beloved bear and learned what’s needed to protect wild pandas and preserve native habitat.”

Two weeks ago, the Chinese Embassy in Washington held an event for a video series about friendship between people in China and the U.S., and Smith gave an emotional speech recounting her experience with giant pandas.

Chinese President Xi Jinping had signaled during a trip in late 2023 that China would be sending new pandas to the United States. He called them “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.”

“We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation, and do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples,” Xi said during a speech with business leaders while he was attending a summit of Indo-Pacific leaders and meeting with President Joe Biden.

“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,” Xi said in his speech, adding that he learned the San Diego Zoo and people in California “very much look forward to welcoming pandas back.”

The zoo accompanied the announcement with a light-hearted video featuring Smith, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III and first lady Jill Biden. The trio in the video are gathered to discuss protocol for a reception to welcome unnamed honored guests. When Biden asks about attire and menu, Smith dryly replies that the impending guests are “strict vegetarians” who are “partial to black and white.”

Last November, giant pandas Tian Tian and Mei Xiang and their cub, Xiao Qi Ji, went back to China, prompting a nationwide outpouring of farewell from millions of U.S. panda fans of all ages. The trio’s departure left only one panda family remaining in American zoos, at Zoo Atlanta, and those remain scheduled to return to China later this year.

Zoo Atlanta is making preparations to return panda parents Lun Lun and Yang Yang along with their American-born twins Ya Lun and Xi Lun, zoo officials said earlier this month. There was no date for the transfer, they said, but it will likely happen between October and December.

It’s possible that America will welcome another new panda pair before the Atlanta bears depart. The San Diego Zoo said last month that staff members recently traveled to China to meet pandas Yun Chuan and Xin Bao, which could arrive in California as soon as this summer. A separate agreement was also announced to send a breeding pair of pandas to San Francisco as well.

Pandas have long been the symbol of the U.S.-China friendship since Beijing gifted a pair to the National Zoo in 1972, ahead of the normalization of bilateral relations. Later, Beijing loaned the pandas to other U.S. zoos, with proceeds going back to panda conservation programs.

When U.S-China relations began to sour in recent years, members of the Chinese public started to demand the return of giant pandas. Unproven allegations that U.S. zoos mistreated the pandas, known as China’s “national treasure,” flooded China’s social media.

The National Zoo said the pandas coming to Washington are:

— Bao Li, a 2-year-old male whose name means “treasure” and “energetic.” He was born Aug. 4, 2021, at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Sichuan to father An An and mother Bao Bao. The zoo said Bao Li’s mother was born at the zoo in 2013, and his grandparents Tian Tian and Mei Xiang lived at the zoo from 2000 to 2023. It was Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, along with their cub Xiao Qi Ji, who left the zoo in November.

— Qing Bao, a 2-year-old female whose name means “green” and “treasure.” She was born Sept. 12, 2021.

Smith, the zoo’s director, said “this historic moment is proof positive our collaboration with Chinese colleagues has made an irrefutable impact.”

“Through this partnership,” Smith said in a statement, “we have grown the panda population, advanced our shared understanding of how to care for this beloved bear and learned what’s needed to protect wild pandas and preserve native habitat.”

The zoo said that the new pandas will be quarantined in the panda house for a minimum of 30 days upon their arrival. The date for the pandas’ public debut will be announced when their care team feels they are ready.

A research and breeding agreement with the Chinese runs through April 2034 and, like previous ones, says any cubs born at the zoo will move to China by age 4, according to the announcement. The zoo will pay a $1 million annual fee to the China Wildlife Conservation Association to support research and conservation efforts in China.

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2 new giant pandas are returning to Washington’s National Zoo from China by the end of the year