(CNN) – The three large pandas tumble round of their enclosure on the Smithsonian Nationwide Zoo in Washington, DC, munching on bamboo shoots and leaves, climbing branches and usually wanting cute.
For the regular stream of guests, it’s their final probability to see Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and their youngest cub, Xiao Qi Ji, earlier than the black-and-white bears head again to China on Wednesday.
Their departure marks the tip of greater than 50 years of Chinese language pandas being housed on the zoo, which was the primary US zoo to showcase the bears as a part of what’s been referred to as “panda diplomacy.”
Zoo employees name it a “hiatus” of their five-decade wildly fashionable panda program; Chinese language officers have but to say whether or not it is going to proceed.
And with relations between the 2 superpowers in a relentless state of flux, these nationwide treasures could also be discovering themselves a part of the extension of the diplomatic chaos that has taken over the connection between the 2 international locations.
The pandas’ departure from the Nationwide Zoo leaves Zoo Atlanta as the one different US zoo to characteristic pandas from China, and never for for much longer. The contracts for Atlanta’s 4 bears expire subsequent 12 months, with no phrase on an extension.
China acknowledges the cuddly creatures are used for its “main political and diplomatic wants,” particularly in locations the place it hopes to realize extra affect or nearer relations. China says its focus is on conservation and analysis and says the US program has been productive.
“The 2 sides have shaped good cooperative relations, achieved fruitful outcomes and performed a constructive function in defending endangered species,” mentioned spokesperson Mao Ning of China’s Ministry of Overseas Affairs.
“The aim is to higher shield endangered species and promote international biodiversity conservation.”
Beijing’s panda diplomacy with Washington kicked off in 1972, following President Richard Nixon’s historic go to to China.
Chairman Mao Zedong’s authorities gave two large pandas to america in an indication of warming bilateral ties after many years of diplomatic deep freeze.
First girl Pat Nixon welcomed the pandas to the nation’s capital, saying, “They are going to be loved by the thousands and thousands of people that come from throughout the nation to go to the nation’s capital every year.”
Seeing the pandas’ reputation rise amongst People, China despatched extra of the cuddly and charismatic creatures to different zoos throughout america, finally loaning them as an alternative of giving them as a present.
Agreements between China and the US zoos stipulate Beijing owns the pandas and any of their offspring, they usually require fee “for the conservation of large pandas in China.” The Nationwide Zoo has paid $500,000 a 12 months; Zoo Atlanta says it has contributed greater than $16 million because the begin of its program in 1999.
Since large pandas arrived on the Nationwide Zoo in 1972, animal care employees and scientists have studied their biology, conduct, breeding, replica and illness, in line with the zoo.
“The Zoo’s large panda crew works carefully with colleagues in China to advance conservation efforts for big pandas in human care and within the wild,” the zoo says on its web site.
On the top of this system, there have been 15 pandas at one time in america, however up to now decade, the numbers have dropped – coinciding with worsening US-China relations. And shortly, there might be no extra pandas at American zoos.
Earlier this 12 months, movies surfaced on Chinese language social media claiming pandas coming back from the Memphis Zoo had been being abused. Partially fueled by Chinese language state media, the claims went viral.
Chinese language medical doctors defended the zoo’s therapy of the pandas, confirming that the enormous panda, named YaYa, was affected by a pores and skin illness, however was in good well being.
However some in China nonetheless see it as an emblem of America’s bullying and oppression of China, with others highlighting international locations corresponding to Russia, which additionally hosts the animals, as a spot the place pandas are handled effectively.
Assuming China chooses to not ship over extra large pandas, and Atlanta sends theirs again subsequent 12 months, by the tip of 2024 the one panda in zoos all through the entire Americas could be Xin Xin in Mexico Metropolis.
Xin Xin – who at 33 is outdated for a panda – is owned by Mexico and is a predominant attraction on the zoo, which is now bracing for a potential surge in guests.
“In the intervening time, come to Mexico!” mentioned Fernando Gual Sill, director normal of the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico Metropolis. “In Mexico Metropolis we’ve the fortune to have (a panda) and to see it and to get pleasure from it!”
Pandas all over the world
Pandas which are a part of China’s mortgage program are supposed to function an envoy of friendship between China and the host nation, so the fading program in america could point out a diplomatic shift.
Russia, China’s northern neighbor, obtained a pair of pandas in 2019, with Chinese language President Xi Jinping standing alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin as they welcomed the bears to the zoo in Moscow.
Qatar obtained its first panda final 12 months.
Together with america, 23 international locations have pandas on mortgage from China, however that quantity is dwindling. Scotland will lose its two pandas in December when the Edinburgh Zoo should return them to China; Australia’s Adelaide Zoo has its two pandas just for yet one more 12 months.
The pandas leaving America will head to the Chengdu Analysis Base of Big Panda Breeding, the place lately conservation efforts have confirmed profitable. Pandas are now not on the endangered species checklist, and their inhabitants has jumped almost 17% over the previous decade, in line with Zoo Atlanta.
Nonetheless, the full variety of large pandas in China – 1,864 as of the most recent census, in 2014 – is taken into account low for breeding and sustaining a viable inhabitants. Solely round 61% of China’s pandas are protected by reserves, and their habitat is threatened by logging in established forests, which eliminates the big tree hollows pandas like to make use of for dens, Zoo Atlanta says.
Will the pandas ever return stateside?
Workers on the Nationwide Zoo say they’re hopeful China may sooner or later ship over extra large pandas. They’re even planning renovations for the soon-to-be vacant panda exhibit.
“We’re longing for the long run, so we’ve submitted an software that’s being reviewed,” mentioned Bob Lee, director of animal care on the Nationwide Zoo.
Zoo Atlanta’s panda habitat price $7 million to construct forward of the bears’ arrival in 1999, and assuming the bears depart on the finish of their contracted keep, it is going to now stand empty. Plans for the exhibit, with a welcome signal asserting the “Big Pandas of Chengdu” and a panda-themed present store, aren’t clear.
Remembering how the pandas first got here to Washington, zoo customer Jane Mahalik mentioned she hoped the present first girl may work for his or her return.
“Pat Nixon bought the pandas right here,” Mahalik informed CNN, “and Jill Biden ought to go and get these pandas again for us.”
CNN’s Yong Xiong reported from Washington, DC, and New York; Melissa Grey reported from Atlanta; and David Culver reported from Los Angeles and Mexico Metropolis. Karol Suarez contributed from Mexico Metropolis.