China Wants to Retrieve All Pandas from American Zoos

China Wants to Retrieve All Pandas from American Zoos

Three pandas reside in the Asia Trail section of the Washington, D.C. National Zoo. Their images can be found on T-shirts, trucker hats, and refrigerator magnets. A live-stream camera captures their every move around the clock. Even the QR code for purchasing tickets to the zoo features the silhouette of a panda. Now, after more than 50 years, Washington's pandas are leaving, possibly for good. Bloomberg reports on this development.

The three pandas in the zoo are set to return to China in December as the three-year agreement with the Chinese Wildlife Conservation Association expires this month. This applies not only to the U.S. capital but also to three other American zoos that house Chinese pandas (in Atlanta, San Diego, and Memphis). They have either already returned their pandas or will do so by the end of next year.

While both sides deny that politics is at play here, China has long used "panda diplomacy" to secure favor, reward friends, and punish adversaries. The potential loss of the last American pandas comes at a time when U.S.-China relations have reached historic lows, with most avenues of cooperation closed off.

At the same time, any hope that Washington would receive new pandas hinges on recent signs that relations may improve slightly or, at the very least, not deteriorate further.

"There's a certain logic that all pandas in the U.S. will be returned to China by next year," says Elena Songster, a professor at California's College of Saint Mary and author of "Nation of Pandas," a book on China's panda policy. "They have a plan. They know what they're doing."

Zoos don't own pandas outright. Instead, they lease them by signing contracts that involve annual payments to China amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Smithsonian Institution, which oversees the Washington National Zoo, has not managed to renegotiate these contracts despite nearing their expiration. Earlier this year, Ya Ya, a panda housed at the Memphis Zoo, became the subject of nationalist fervor in China. Among other allegations was that she was mistreated after images showed her looking thin and her fur dirty. The animal, deemed healthy by both the U.S. and China, returned home in April.

The U.S. received its first pandas after President Richard Nixon normalized relations with China in 1972, and many other countries followed suit. A 2013 study found a correlation between uranium deals and pandas being loaned to Canada and France. In 2018, China provided pandas to Finland to mark the centenary of its independence.

"From the goodwill gestures of Nixon-era diplomacy, they've turned into symbols of discord today," noted Lizzi Lee, a fellow at the Asia Policy Institute's China Economic Program. "Pandas have become canvases for narratives of distrust and competition."

There are many non-political reasons why pandas may return home. One of them is that all pandas leaving American zoos have reached an age when they would return home regardless. The departure of some pandas was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since giant pandas are no longer considered endangered, China is building its own network of national parks and may not see the need to send them abroad for conservation and breeding.

What will happen next with the Washington National Zoo's pandas remains unclear. The move could be temporary, as it was in 1999 when the zoo was without pandas for a year. Alternatively, China may offer them as a token of goodwill during future diplomatic negotiations.

Preliminary Signs Both China and the U.S. have left the door open for a potential return. This aligns with preliminary signs that relations may be on the upswing after a sharp decline.

President Joe Biden's goal remains a face-to-face meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the anticipation of which has stretched for nearly a year. This year, Xi will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in San Francisco, and there's a possibility he may bring a promise of more pandas for American zoos.

A spokesperson for the National Zoo declined to comment on whether new negotiations are underway. However, a person familiar with the Biden administration's thinking said that the U.S. plans to discuss this matter with China before the Washington pandas depart.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington suggests the possibility of a positive outcome.

"There have been many good outcomes in terms of breeding, disease prevention and control, technical exchanges, and public awareness," said embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu. He added that both sides are "in discussions about future collaboration in giant panda conservation and research."

Visitors to the zoo reacted to the impending departure of the pandas with sadness. Among them was Elizabeth Toms, a stay-at-home mom from Silver Spring, Maryland, who brought her children to the zoo for the second time this month when she learned that the pandas were leaving.

"My daughter says they're the most unusual creatures in the zoo, and coming from a four-year-old, that's a very nice compliment," Toms noted.

Her daughter, Nat, giggled while watching the youngest panda at the National Zoo, Xiao Qi Ji, attempt, unsuccessfully, to climb a tree.

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