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HomeWorldChina takes back pandas from zoos in U.S., U.K.

China takes back pandas from zoos in U.S., U.K.

China is expecting its giant pandas back. The black-and-white guests — star attractions in zoos in the United States and Britain — are expected to return to their home country by the end of next year, in what analysts suggest is a possible change in tack in China’s approach to “panda diplomacy.”

In Washington, the National Zoo’s three pandas are scheduled to depart for China by Dec. 7 as their loan agreement expires, leaving just four in Atlanta, who are also due to leave next year unless a new deal is reached. Britain will lose its last two pandas in December, as will Australia next year if an existing agreement is not extended. There are currently no agreements to replace any of them. Without an extension, the United States faces the prospect of having no giant pandas for the first time since 1972.

“This is perhaps Beijing’s way of signaling to the West that they may not be very happy with how things are going,” said Chee Meng Tan, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia who studies “panda diplomacy,” the term used to describe Beijing’s decades-long strategy of gifting or lending the bears in the hope of building relations with other countries.

Beijing has grown increasingly frustrated with how relations between China and the West have deteriorated in recent years, Tan said. “This may be one way of telling people that. ‘You’re not treating us very well, so maybe we’ll pull out our pandas,’” he added in a telephone interview Thursday.

The Memphis Zoo’s pandas left in April, and the San Diego Zoo’s in 2019. After the departure from the National Zoo scheduled for December, giant panda fans will need to travel to Georgia to admire the pair of black-and-white bears in Zoo Atlanta, the last left in the country. They do not have long, either — in the deal negotiated by the zoo, the pandas are due to leave in 2024, and as of April there had been no discussion about renewing it.

Pandas have been symbolic in U.S.-China relations since 1972 — when President Richard M. Nixon made his historic visit to communist China and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai offered first lady Pat Nixon two giant pandas — which ended up in Washington’s zoo. “It was a signal of improving ties between Beijing and the rest of the world,” Tan said.

China has also acknowledged the role of pandas in its diplomacy in the past: Ten years ago, China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, said in an op-ed for The Washington Post: “There are actually two Chinese ambassadors in Washington: me and the panda cub at the National Zoo.”

First lady Pat Nixon goes sight seeing and visits a giant panda compound in China in February 1972. (Video: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum)

And the pandas mean a lot even to those not interested in politics. The National Zoo’s giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian have enchanted visitors for years, and large numbers of visitors have been turning up in recent days to honor the pandas and their 3-year-old male cub Xiao Qi Ji, before their departure to China. In the Netherlands and Japan, which also returned panda cubs this year to China under the terms of existing agreements, crowds also gathered to say goodbye — in fact, some 60,000 people applied for tickets to see Xiang Xiang, the 5-year-old panda in Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo, on her last day, with some breaking down in tears as they watched her, Reuters reported.

Besides extracting an emotional toll from visitors, the panda’s departures could be financially costly for the zoos. Multiple studies have shown that pandas are a star attraction for fee-paying visitors and a boon for ticket sales at zoos around the world, according to the South China Morning Post.

After living in Scotland since 2011, Britain’s only two giant pandas will return to China from their home in the Edinburgh Zoo in early December, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland announced earlier this month. Australia is also set to lose its only pandas next year, if the Adelaide Zoo fails to extend an agreement that the zoo said is due to expire in 2024.

The pandas’ departures are typically tied to loan agreements that are not extended, and officials have not explicitly tied their return to politics. However, China analysts note that the departures coincide with growing tensions in Western countries’ relations with Beijing.

“China now requires countries that have been given the privilege of hosting pandas to be friendly to China, and if they’re not doing so sufficiently, then pandas will be withdrawn,” Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said in an email Thursday. He said the recalls could be seen as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s broader, increasingly assertive approach to foreign policy.

Chinese panda, gifted to Taiwan as a symbol of friendship, dies

There are also signs that the policy of lending “friendship” pandas to Western nations is being viewed with growing skepticism within China. Earlier this year, the Global Times, a nationalist, state-affiliated Chinese tabloid, ran a news story headlined: “Is it time to end ‘panda diplomacy’?”

There may be other reasons China is less interested in sending its pandas abroad. Tan pointed out that the giant panda’s threat level was downgraded from “endangered” to “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2016 — as its global population climbed to more sustainable levels. That threat was also part of the reason Beijing collaborated with foreign zoos to host pandas — to promote their conservation, he said.

Other countries have returned their pandas for reasons other than the loan terms. In 2020, Canada said goodbye to its only two giant pandas, three years earlier than expected — after zoo authorities struggled to source the bamboo they needed to feed them. “They are picky,” Calgary Zoo President Clement Lanthier said at the time, according to the Associated Press. “There’s a reason they are endangered. They need their bamboo. That’s all they do. They eat bamboo and they sleep.”

Notably, one country is likely to have pandas for the foreseeable future. In 2019, Xi presented Russian President Vladimir Putin with two giant pandas at the Moscow Zoo, loaning them for 15 years as part of a joint research program, Reuters reported.

“When we talk about pandas, we always end up with a smile on our faces,” Putin said, thanking his Chinese counterpart. “We accept this gift with great respect and gratitude.”

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