May 29, 2024 - News

Giant pandas are returning to D.C.'s National Zoo

Two-year-old male giant panda Bao Li in his habitat at Shenshuping Base in Wolong, China.

Bao Li in his habitat at Shenshuping Base in Wolong, China. Photo courtesy of Roshan Patel, Smithsonian's National Zoo, and Conservation Biology Institute

D.C. is officially getting giant pandas back at the National Zoo.

Why it matters: In a city where panda merch and "bearthday" parties were rampant, being giant panda-less since November has not been easy for Washingtonians. Now that they're coming back, expect plenty of happy "pandamonium."

Driving the news: D.C. will receive a pair of pandas by the end of the year, per an elaborate video announcement Wednesday involving first lady Jill Biden, Smithsonian secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, and National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute director Brandie Smith.

The big picture: Since China first sent giant pandas to the National Zoo following the normalizing of ties with the U.S. in 1972, the iconic bears have been a sign of friendship between the two nations.

  • But the number of giant pandas at U.S. zoos has dwindled as tensions between Washington and Beijing rose in recent years.
  • D.C.'s last three pandas — Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and their cub, Xiao Qi Ji — returned to China in November per the terms of the zoo's loan agreement with the Chinese government. A return was uncertain.

Now, the many new bears China has pledged to send to the U.S. in recent months are a promising sign for "panda diplomacy."

  • Diplomatic goodwill was on full display during the National Zoo announcement, where Chinese ambassador Xie Feng dubbed the duo "our new envoys of friendship."

🐼 Meet the pandas: Bao Li is a 2-year-old male and the son of Bao Bao, the female panda born at the zoo in 2013, and the grandson of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the two pandas who left the zoo last year.

  • He'll be joined by Qing Bao, a 2-year-old female.
Two-year-old female giant panda Qing Bao eats bamboo leaves in her habitat.
Qing Bao in her habitat at Dujiangyan Base in Sichuan, China. Photo courtesy of Roshan Patel, Smithsonian's National Zoo, and Conservation Biology Institute

State of play: Their arrival date is top secret, but the bears will be flown via private jumbo jet. It'll be the 11th journey for pandas on the FedEx Panda Express, which has transported 15 such bears over the past two decades.

  • The Chinese-owned duo will stick around at least through April 2034 on a 10-year research and breeding agreement, during which the zoo will pay the China Wildlife and Conservation Association $1 million annually — 100% of which goes to panda conservation efforts in China.
  • Under the agreement, any cubs born here will move to China by the age of 4.

Zoom in: Bao Li and Qing Bao were chosen for their promising genetic match. But there's no rush to reproduce.

  • "We'll have a few years just to enjoy these two, and then people can start asking about cubs," Smith tells Axios. The average age for cub-bearing starts between 5 and 7.
  • Reproduction is still important, but it isn't the #1 priority in this new phase of the program.

What they're saying: "We had to crack the code on how giant pandas reproduce — that box is checked," Smith tells Axios. She says a new focus is habitat health — studying bamboo forests and regrowth — and diseases and issues impacting the animals' health.

  • The conservation program has helped the species move off the endangered species list to "vulnerable."

The new homemakers can expect one bougie bear den. Carlyle Group co-founder David Rubenstein's $9 million panda habitat is getting a $2.5 million facelift — which includes 40 new cameras for a higher-grade PandaCam.

  • The revamp covers all four living spaces, including an upgraded panda house (e.g. new pools, climbing structures, hammocks) and outdoor structures.
  • They'll be quarantined for 30 days in the habitat upon arrival to acclimate before they're ready for display.

Follow the money: The zoo is seeking $25 million in public and corporate donations to be used over the next 10 years for the program, whose essentials are covered by federal funding.

The bottom line: Pandas might be pricey to keep and study, but it's free to see them at the National Zoo — a big boon for conservation efforts, according to director Smith.

  • "Pandas are the gateway to saving other endangered species," Smith tells Axios. "You love pandas, but then you might love hellbenders next."
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