China reclaims pandas from US zoos – is the panda politics era over?

Most of the contracts loaning giant pandas to US zoos are expiring without extensions – some say this could be a reflection of rising tensions between the US and China, though others suggest it may be coincidence.

Giant pandas have been loaned to the US from China for decades
Shutterstock/Thomas Dekiere

Giant pandas housed at two US zoos will be returning to China later this year, leaving the US with only one zoo where the public will be able to see the gorgeous black-and-white bears. It s unclear whether China’s recall of the pandas at the two zoos that are about to lose them is the result of unsuccessful contract negotiations between the zoos and the Chinese government or a reflection of the rising tensions between the US and China.

As a gesture of thanks to former US president Richard Nixon for his visit to China in 1972, China gifted the US a pair of black-and-white bears. “That was the first kind of big diplomatic demonstration, and use, of the giant panda,” says E. Elena Songster at Saint Mary’s College of California and author of Panda Nation. “It set off this new era of panda diplomacy.” Fifty years later, there are more than 600 pandas living outside of mainland China, eight of which are in the US.

All giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) are the property of the Chinese government, and at the country’s discretion, can be loaned to qualifying zoos around the world. US zoos usually pay China around $1 million per bear per year as part of a contract that typically renews on a five or 10-year cycles, according to details disclosed by the zoos. “It’s one of the few animals in the world that isn’t owned privately and can’t be traded privately,” says Paul Jepson at investment group CreditNature. “The panda is quite a unique case.”

All pandas outside of China are part of breeding programs aimed at bolstering the species’ numbers, and the cubs on US soil are required to be sent to China by their fifth birthday. When a zoo’s lease is up, as happened to the San Diego Zoo in 2019, China can decide to recall the bears.

Three US zoos currently host giant pandas: the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC has three, the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee has one and Zoo Atlanta in Georgia has four. The bears in Washington DC and Memphis will be sent to China by the end of the year, according to statements from the zoos.

The future of giant pandas at Zoo Atlanta isn’t clear, either. A spokesperson for Zoo Atlanta wouldn’t say how long those bears can expect to remain there. “We are not able to discuss the specifics of our giant panda loan agreement with China,” the spokesperson said.

One factor behind the apparent panda recall trend could be mounting political and economic tension between the nations, as the bears have been used as a symbol of partnership in the past, says Songster. Or it could be a coincidental case of multiple panda loans expiring in the same handful of years. “I think each case is separate,” says Melissa Songer at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington DC. “I don’t see it as a trend or a new policy toward US zoos.”

The astonishing recovery of giant pandas from the brink of extinction could be another reason China is asking for its bears back. Breeding programs abroad – in addition to those in China – have roughly doubled the number of pandas to more than 2000, allowing for downlisting the species from endangered to vulnerable. Perhaps China no longer needs the expertise of those in the West, says Jepson.

The termination of a zoo’s panda loan doesn’t mean the bears will never return. “We are hoping to have pandas in the future,” says Songer. “Those discussions are going on now.”

Post a Comment

share your words ...

Last Article Next Article