Feb 22, 2024 - Science

"Envoys of friendship": China set to send giant pandas to San Diego Zoo

: Giant panda cubs rest in a tree at the Shenshuping Base of China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda on April 2, 2022 in Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province of China.

Giant panda cubs in the Sichuan province of China in 2022. Photo: Xu Jun/VCG via Getty Images

China's government is set to send two giant pandas to the San Diego Zoo as soon as the end of this summer, U.S. zoological officials told AP late Wednesday.

Why it matters: The presence of the iconic bears at U.S. zoos has been a sign of friendship between the two nations since the arrival of the first giant pandas following the normalizing of ties in 1972.

  • As tensions between Washington and Beijing rose in recent years, the number of giant pandas at zoos has dwindled — and the only two panda cubs and their parents remaining in the U.S. are due to depart Zoo Atlanta for China next year.

Driving the news: Chinese leader Xi Jinping suggested during a November visit to San Francisco that his government may lend more giant pandas to U.S. zoos in the future, noting he had learned that the San Diego Zoo and Californians were looking forward to welcoming pandas back.

  • "Pandas have long been envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples," Xi said in his speech at a dinner with business leaders, per state media.
  • "We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation, and do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples."

What they're saying: Megan Owen, of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and vice president of Wildlife Conservation Science, told AP that officials were "excited and hopeful" at the plans to send one male and a female panda to the zoo, pending approval of requirements including permits.

  • "They've expressed a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to re-initiate panda cooperation starting with the San Diego Zoo," she said.
  • "We do talk about panda diplomacy all the time," Owen added. "Diplomacy is a critical part of conservation."

Zoom out: Giant pandas were listed as endangered in the 1980s, with just over 1,100 in China.

  • But conservation efforts have seen their populations increase, and they're now listed as a threatened species.
  • Recent estimates indicate that nearly 1,900 pandas now live in the wild.

What we're watching: Under the plan, Beijing officials may send a female descendent of the zoo's former residents Bai Yun and Gao Gao, who returned to China some five years ago, Owen said.

Flashback: National Zoo's giant pandas start 19-hour journey back to China

Go deeper