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“Panda Diplomacy: The Potential Departure of DC’s Beloved Pandas and Its Broader Implications”

by Chloe Baker
1 comment
Panda Diplomacy

In a heartwarming scene at the National Zoo, 10-year-old Kelsey Lambert, adorned in an “I Love Pandas” t-shirt and clutching a panda-themed diary, experienced pure excitement as she watched the zoo’s iconic giant pandas, Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and their cub Xiao Qi Ji. Kelsey and her mother, Alison, had traveled all the way from San Antonio, Texas, just for this memorable encounter with these furry celebrities.

“It felt completely amazing,” Kelsey exclaimed. “My mom has always promised she would take me one day. So we had to do it now that they’re going away.”

However, the joy surrounding the National Zoo’s pandas may be short-lived. These cherished pandas are scheduled to return to China in early December, casting doubt on the continuation of the 50-year-old exchange agreement established during former President Richard Nixon’s era.

National Zoo officials have maintained a stoic silence regarding the prospects of renewing or extending the agreement, with repeated attempts to seek comment yielding no response. The zoo’s public stance has been noticeably pessimistic, treating these remaining months as the conclusion of an era, as evidenced by the recently concluded Panda Palooza: A Giant Farewell event.

This potential departure of the National Zoo’s pandas is occurring amidst a larger trend, according to veteran China-watchers. With diplomatic tensions escalating between Beijing and several Western governments, China seems to be gradually withdrawing its pandas from various Western zoos as their loan agreements come to an end.

Dennis Wilder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues, describes this trend as “punitive panda diplomacy.” He points out that two other American zoos lost their pandas in recent years, while zoos in Scotland and Australia are grappling with similar departures, with no indications of their loan agreements being extended.

Beijing currently lends 65 pandas to 19 countries through “cooperative research programs” aimed at safeguarding this vulnerable species. These pandas return to China as they age, and any cubs born are sent back to China at around 3 or 4 years old.

The San Diego Zoo returned its pandas in 2019, and the last panda at the Memphis, Tennessee zoo returned earlier this year. If the National Zoo’s pandas depart, the only giant pandas remaining in the United States will be at the Atlanta Zoo, with their loan agreement expiring late next year.

Wilder suggests that China may be attempting to send a signal through this move, citing numerous flashpoints in Chinese-American relations, including sanctions, trade restrictions, and controversies over Chinese-owned platforms like TikTok.

Amidst this tension, even the U.S. Senate has weighed in, with Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman expressing concerns about China buying American farmland and humorously remarking, “I mean, they’re taking back our pandas. You know, we should take back all their farmland.”

Notably, Chinese sentiments have also soured towards the United States, with anti-American feelings on the rise. This sentiment intensified when Le Le, a male panda on loan to the Memphis Zoo, unexpectedly passed away in February at the age of 24, well beyond the typical lifespan of pandas in the wild. This event triggered a social media storm in China, with allegations of mistreatment and demands for the return of the surviving panda, Ya Ya.

The controversy escalated to the point where the Memphis Zoo released a statement clarifying that Ya Ya had a chronic skin and fur condition and that Le Le had died of natural causes. An official Chinese scientific delegation confirmed these findings, yet the outrage persisted. Ya Ya was eventually returned to China in April when the loan agreement ended.

The Chinese government, which initially gifted pandas to the U.S., now leases them for ten-year renewable terms. The annual fee ranges from $1 million to $2 million per pair, with additional costs for facility construction and maintenance. Any panda cubs born belong to the Chinese government but can be leased for an extra fee until they reach mating age.

Over five decades of American panda loan agreements, there have been occasional challenges, but the current situation is distinctly different, given the elevated tensions between the two governments. Observers remain hopeful for high-level diplomatic intervention to resolve the panda dispute, possibly during the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

For now, panda enthusiasts of all ages are making pilgrimages to Washington to catch a final glimpse of these beloved bears. Despite the uncertainty, optimism remains that a mutually beneficial agreement can be reached. And if all else fails, as Kelsey Lambert suggests, there’s always the option of flying to China to see these cherished animals.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Panda Diplomacy

What is the background of the National Zoo’s pandas leaving for China?

The National Zoo’s three giant pandas, Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and their cub Xiao Qi Ji, are set to return to China in early December, marking the potential end of a 50-year-old exchange agreement initiated by former President Richard Nixon.

Why are National Zoo officials tight-lipped about the renewal of the panda loan agreement?

National Zoo officials have not provided public updates on the renewal or extension of the panda loan agreement, and attempts to seek comments from them have gone unanswered. The public stance of the zoo has been notably pessimistic, treating the remaining months as the end of an era.

Is the departure of the National Zoo’s pandas part of a broader trend?

Yes, according to experts, the potential departure of the National Zoo’s pandas is part of a larger trend. China appears to be gradually withdrawing its pandas from multiple Western zoos as their loan agreements expire, which has been dubbed “punitive panda diplomacy.”

How many pandas does China lend to other countries, and what is the purpose of these loans?

China lends out 65 pandas to 19 countries through “cooperative research programs” aimed at better protecting the vulnerable species. These pandas return to China as they age, and any cubs born during their stay are sent back to China when they reach 3 or 4 years old.

What are some factors contributing to the tensions between China and Western governments mentioned in the article?

Tensions between China and Western governments stem from various issues, including sanctions, trade restrictions, controversies over Chinese-owned platforms like TikTok, and concerns about the import of Chinese semiconductors and the opioid fentanyl.

Have other Western zoos also lost their pandas recently?

Yes, two other American zoos have lost their pandas in recent years, and zoos in Scotland and Australia are also facing similar departures with no signs of their loan agreements being renewed.

Is there hope for a resolution to the panda dispute?

Observers remain hopeful that high-level diplomatic intervention could resolve the panda dispute, potentially during upcoming international summits. However, the situation is complex due to the broader diplomatic tensions between the United States and China.

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1 comment

InfoGeek101 October 3, 2023 - 11:36 pm

Pandas? Wow, big deal. Need more of this type of agreement!

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