Is panda diplomacy coming to an end? This month the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute is celebrating three giant pandas and its conservation program with nine days of festivities before the pandas return to China later this year.
September 23rd marks the beginning of the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute’s (NZCBI) nine-day long Panda Palooza, an event celebrating its three giant pandas before they are returned to China in December. Those in the Washington, DC area can visit the pandas in person during the event and participate in a variety of panda-themed activities including arts and crafts, a conservation-themed scavenger hunt, and screenings of “Kung Fu Panda.” Additionally, the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China will provide a calligraphy station and tasty celebratory treats. Details about the festivities can be found on the National Zoo’s website. Further, panda fans everywhere can watch the Giant Panda Cam and share their favorite panda memories and photos with the National Zoo on this site.
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived at the zoo in 2000, and unlike their predecessors are on loan from the Chinese government. Since 2000, NZCBI has renewed the loan agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association three times, most recently an extension for three years in December 2020. Over the past five decades NZCBI has worked collaboratively with over 150 Chinese partners to conserve giant pandas in the wild, and has contributed to research on panda husbandry, nutrition, behavior, genetics, veterinary medicine, and reproduction. Collaborative conservation efforts have made significant contributions to research on giant pandas and trained the next generation of researchers and care professionals to ensure the species thrives in the future. Notably, in 2016 giant pandas were upgraded from “endangered” to vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Currently there are an estimated 1,800 pandas in the wild.
The Panda Palooza marks 51 years of “panda diplomacy” at the National Zoo, and possibly the end of an era. The giant pandas have served as symbols of goodwill and friendship between the United States and China. However, there is a trend of pandas returning to China without indications of new pandas coming to US zoos in the future. Earlier this year Ya Ya — a longtime resident of the Memphis Zoo — returned to China. Further, with Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and Xiao Qi Ji’s departure, there will only be two giant pandas remaining in the United States — whose departure is also approaching. Ya Lun and Xi Lun, twin giant pandas at the Atlanta Zoo, are to return to China sometime next year, though no specific timeline has been set with partners at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
The departure of giant pandas residing in the United States begs the question of what is the future of panda diplomacy? Recent speculation contends the pandas may be leaving due to current political tensions between the United States and China, though the answer may not be as “black and white.” Pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are both elderly, and Xiao Qi Ji is nearing breeding age. Agreements between the United States and China have been traditionally collaborative and flexible throughout the years, demonstrating flexibility rather than zero-sum political antics. An August 2023 article in Foreign Policy quoted Smithsonian Zoo director Brandie Smith on US-China collaboration: “I can say all of our conversations are very strong; they’re very positive…the work we do is so collaborative, it’s really focusing on that and hoping for the best.”
Though the pandas’ departure is bittersweet, perhaps the larger 50-year cultural and research relationship that established ties between China and the greater Washington, DC community — and worked to conserve the Giant Panda population — is something surely worth celebrating.
Bettyjane Hoover is a Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a graduate student at American University’s School of International Service, studying International Affairs with a focus on the Indo-Pacific region.
Claire Callahan is a Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington and a graduate student at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs pursuing a Master of Arts in Asian Studies. Claire previously worked as Communication Officer at The Korea Society in New York City and was a Fulbright grantee to South Korea.