After next year, the US won’t be home to a single panda. All the Pandas in American Zoos Set to Return to China, informs Bloomberg.
Giant pandas are everywhere at Washington, DC’s National Zoo. Three live in the zoo’s Asia Trail. A 24-hour panda-cam broadcasts the trio’s every move. Even the QR code to reserve zoo tickets features a panda silhouette.
Now, after more than 50 years, Washington’s pandas are going away — and maybe for good.
The zoo’s three pandas are set to return to China by December with the expiration of a three-year agreement with China’s wildlife agency that month. It’s not just the US capital. The three other US zoos that have Chinese pandas — Atlanta, San Diego and Memphis — have all either turned over their pandas or will see them return to China by the end of next year.
Although both sides deny politics are at play, China has long used “Panda Diplomacy” to curry favor, reward friends and punish adversaries. And the potential loss of America’s last pandas comes at a moment when ties between the US and China have hit a historic low, with most avenues of cooperation cut off.
“There’s some significance to the fact that all of the pandas in the United States will be back in China by next year,” said Elena Songster, a professor at Saint Mary’s College of California and author of “Panda Nation,” a book about China’s panda policy. “They have a plan. They know what they’re doing.”
The push-and-pull over pandas reflects in part the quirky way they show up in zoos around the world. Zoos don’t get full custody of pandas. Instead, they rent them, signing contracts to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to China.
After years of renewing those contracts, the Smithsonian Institution, which oversees Washington’s zoo, hasn’t so able to do so again so far even with the deadline approaching fast.
The US was rewarded with its first pandas after President Richard Nixon normalized ties in 1972 and many other nations followed. A 2013 study found a correlation between uranium deals and panda loans to Canada and France. In 2018, China loaned out pandas to Finland to mark a centennial of Finnish independence.
“From the goodwill gestures of Nixon-era diplomacy, they’ve evolved into today’s emblems of discord,” said Lizzi C. Lee, a fellow at the Chinese Economy program at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “Pandas have become canvases for narratives of distrust and rivalry.”
With pandas no longer classified as endangered, China is building its own network of national parks, and may not feel the need to send them abroad to be conserved and bred.
It’s unclear what comes next for the Washington zoo. The move could be temporary, as happened in 1999 when the zoo went without pandas for a year. Or China may offer them as a reward in some future diplomatic negotiation.
President Joe Biden’s goal remains a face-to-face meeting with President Xi Jinping, something that hasn’t happened in almost a year. Xi is expected to attend this year’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in San Francisco, and it’s possible he could bring with him the promise of more pandas for American zoos.
Asked about the prospect of more negotiations, a State Department spokesperson said the panda agreement was not government-to-government but between the National Zoo and the China Wildlife Conservation Association. The person said past cooperation had been “a gesture of goodwill on both sides.”
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