As Pandas Depart Nationwide Zoo, Is Panda Diplomacy Over?

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And with that, an period of panda diplomacy will finish, a minimum of for now.

It started when Patricia Nixon, the primary woman, talked about her fondness for pandas — “I really like them” — to China’s premier, Zhou Enlai, through the landmark go to she and President Richard Nixon made to Beijing in 1972. Inside two months, China had despatched a feminine and a male panda, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, to the Nationwide Zoo.

The panda presence in Washington has endured ever since as a logo of the ties between america and China.

The black-and-white fur balls which may as effectively be waddling stuffies had at all times struck me as pure diplomats: After I was residing and dealing in Beijing, I took my household to the panda analysis middle within the metropolis of Chengdu, and my 3½-year-old daughter developed an everlasting obsession with them.

Zoo officers and scientists say the precise cause comes right down to biology, or “panda time.” The three pandas, they are saying, are every at an age when they need to be going again to China.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived in 2000, about one yr after Hsing-Hsing was euthanized attributable to kidney illness and eight years after Ling Ling’s passing from coronary heart failure. The 2 new pandas stayed for a decade underneath the primary formal pact, then remained underneath two consecutive five-year agreements. That final one ended early within the pandemic, and the accomplice affiliation in China agreed to a three-year extension, which is about to run out.

“They’re on the age when they need to be in China,” mentioned Melissa Songer, a conservation biologist on the zoo who has labored with the pandas for 23 years. “I don’t need to have a panda move away exterior of China.”

Zoo Atlanta now has the one big pandas in america — mother and father and twin cubs — however they’re anticipated to return to China subsequent yr. An ageing mom and her son in San Diego Zoo returned in 2019, and Ya Ya, a feminine panda in Memphis Zoo, flew again this April. Her companion, Le Le, was attributable to return together with her however died in February from coronary heart illness at age 25, an occasion that infuriated some Chinese language residents.

It takes greater than bamboo groves to host a panda. For starters, the Nationwide Zoo paid a payment to a Chinese language conservation accomplice of $500,000 per yr for a pair (down from $1 million throughout Mei Xiang and Tian Tian’s first decade right here).

Regardless of the prices, the 4 American zoos which have persistently hosted pandas have labored with two separate conservation teams in China to safe the agreements. Ms. Songer mentioned the Nationwide Zoo intends to ask its accomplice, the China Wildlife Conservation Affiliation, for a brand new pair.

When requested about that prospect, Liu Pengyu, the Chinese language Embassy spokesman, didn’t reply. However he did say that enormous pandas are “friendship ambassadors of the Chinese language individuals” and that the collaboration between China and the Nationwide Zoo “has performed an necessary position in enhancing the mutual understanding and friendship between the Chinese language and American peoples.”

Zoo officers mentioned that they had not requested the State Division to get entangled, nor did they intend to prod President Biden to place in a phrase with Xi Jinping, China’s chief, when the 2 meet in California subsequent week.

“We now have it found out, China has it found out,” Ms. Songer mentioned. “It’s been an enormous success to breed them underneath human care.”

The panda inhabitants in China has grown, and now scientists are experimenting with reintroducing pandas into the wild.

Early Sunday morning, my daughter, Aria, now 11, and I watched as mom, father and son lumbered round their separate indoor and out of doors enclosures, chewing on bamboo, tumbling with plastic balls and clambering over boulders.

They appeared about as cuddly because the stuffed pandas that Aria slept with each evening. Aria regaled me with limitless panda trivia: “Do you know that they eat 14 hours a day?”

The crowds ballooned, creating a way of panda-monium.

The Allen household drove eight hours from Charlotte, N.C., to see the pandas for the primary time.

“I watched the panda cam each day through the pandemic,” mentioned one of many kids, Anna Kate, referring to cameras that the zoo had arrange years in the past to broadcast a panda actuality present on-line.

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