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US zoos will be without pandas for the first time in over 50 years

Technically, all pandas, even those born outside China, belong to China, so the U.S. isn't the only country that has to return them.
US zoos will be without pandas for the first time in over 50 years
Posted at 12:56 PM, Sep 29, 2023

The complex relationship between the United States and China is well-known, and it is poised to become a bit less friendly as the era of Panda Diplomacy draws to a close.

By the end of the year, in just three more months, only four giant pandas will remain in the U.S.: Two adults and two cubs at the zoo in Atlanta.

However, by late 2024, U.S. zoos will be without pandas for the first time in over five decades.

This is because every giant panda at every zoo in the country is on loan from the Chinese government.

Although the first panda arrived in the U.S. in 1936, it wasn't until President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972 that the country welcomed another panda.

"I think panda-monium is going to break out at the zoo," First Lady Pat Nixon said when she welcomed the very adorable Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing as gifts from the Chinese government.

And she was right. About 8,000 people stood in the rain to see the pandas when they first went on display at the National Zoo.

Unfortunately, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing passed away in the late 1990s without having had any cubs for the U.S. to keep.

SEE MORE: National Zoo to hand over giant pandas to China after 51 years

In 2000, the National Zoo welcomed its second pair of giant pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, under a 10-year agreement with the Chinese government in exchange for $10 million.

The zoo continued to sign extensions to care for the cuddly bears, but now the agreement with the China Wildlife and Conservation Association is set to end this December, and the zoo confirmed that 3-year-old Xiao Qi Ji and his parents, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, age 25, will depart the zoo by December.

There were only four zoos in the U.S. that housed giant pandas.

Following the National Zoo's panda success in the 1970s, the San Diego Zoo received its first two pandas in 1987, Basi and Yuan Yuan, under a 100-day agreement. Later, in 1996, Bai Yun and Shi Shi arrived under a 12-year agreement. Over time, six pandas were born at the zoo, and returned to China when the extension of the last agreement ended in 2019.

In 2003, the Memphis Zoo made a 20-year agreement with the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens to bring Ya Ya to its zoo; in April, she had to return to her homeland.

In Atlanta, the panda journey began in 1999, when Lun Lun and Yang Yang arrived. The pair had seven offspring through artificial insemination, and five were eventually returned to China. Atlanta will continue to care for the two adults and their two cubs until their contract expires in late 2024. However, the zoo has stated they will try to negotiate an extension.

But the U.S. is not the only one who has to return all its pandas; technically speaking, all pandas, including those born outside China, are considered the property of China, and they are rented out to zoos all across the world for millions of dollars a year. 

Approximately 1,864 pandas exist in the wild, primarily in China's Sichuan Province, with numbers increasing thanks to conservation efforts and successful breeding programs.

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