For half a century, giant pandas have been a top attraction at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C. But within a matter of months, the three pandas living there will head back to China, and other U.S. zoos are also being forced to say goodbye to their adorable and popular residents.
Panda diplomacy for the U.S. dates back to 1972 when the first pair of giant pandas arrived as a gift from China. Since then, nine pandas and 17 surviving cubs have spent time in U.S. zoos on loan from China.
"One thing that pandas are particularly good at is appealing to people regardless of their background, regardless of their age, regardless of their politics," said E. Elena Songster, the author of "Panda Nation" and the chair of the history department at Saint Mary's College of California.
For China, the benefit to panda diplomacy is improving the country's international image.
"They're not exporting their fast food or exporting their music necessarily, not yet anyway. But they're exporting their animals … When people look at the pandas, they think, Oh, they're peaceful, they're nice, they're cute and cuddly. And that's basically one of the main reasons why [China is] doing it," said Chee Meng Tan, assistant professor of business economics at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus who studies panda diplomacy.
But there's also a financial upside. Panda loan agreements typically include large sums of money, often $1 million per year per pair of pandas.
"That structure was designed specifically to benefit the wild population. And the wild population has proved to be more healthy than it was previously thought to be," said Songster.
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The Chinese government hasn't explained why pandas from the U.S. and some other Western nations are being returned, and there are no plans for new pandas to move in. It could be as simple as the lease agreements coming to an end. But experts say it's hard not to see a connection with current-day politics.
"If you're looking at the patterns of a strained relationship between the West and China, and the un-fortuitous pullout of the pandas and so on, it's hard not to read into it," said Tan.
"Because pandas are so intensely popular, people put pressure on their politicians to get involved and help negotiate that," Songster added. "And so when politicians get popular and public pressure to get pandas and incorporate that into their negotiations and relations with China's government, then that puts China in a really excellent position to negotiate other things."
The giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo returned to China in 2019. The Memphis Zoo returned its panda, Ya Ya, to China in April of this year.
Once Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their cub Xiao Qi Ji leave Washington D.C., the only giant pandas left in the U.S. will be at Zoo Atlanta. The two adult pandas and two cubs there are also expected to return to China sometime in 2024. It's unclear when, or if, any U.S. zoos will strike a new panda loan agreement with China.
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