Farewell to Ambassadors: The Departure of Giant Pandas

Giant Panda(by Lifan Zhang)

The giant pandas are gone.

After a month-long farewell event, the National Zoo in Washington D.C. bid farewell to their last three giant pandas. Alison Towers, a 14-year-old avid panda fan, traveled from her home in San Diego with her family just for the weekend to say goodbye to Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and Xiao Qi Ji. San Diego Zoo also used to have giant pandas. “We used to go see the pandas every month,” said Alison, with a panda-patterned backpack, waving goodbye to her chubby friends.

The Atlanta Zoo is now the only park in the U.S. with giant pandas. However, by the end of 2024, Atlanta’s pandas will also return to their homeland. Other U.S. zoos that had giant pandas, including San Diego and Memphis, sent them back in 2019 and earlier this year, respectively.

The giant panda, an adorably clumsy kind of bear, was once an ambassador for China to showcase its friendly image abroad. The pandas at the National Zoo are also witnesses to this development of the U.S. and China’s relationship.

The National Zoo’s first pair of giant pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, were given as gifts by Mao Zedong during President Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972. These two pandas were captured in the wild in 1971 and were about three or four years old when they arrived in the US.

During their time at the National Zoo, the pair had five cubs between 1983 and 1989, but none of them survived longer than a few days. Ling-Ling died of heart disease in 1992, while Hsing-Hsing died of kidney failure in 1999.

In 1982, China stopped capturing and gifting pandas from the wild. China stated that for conservation purposes, they instead began leasing pandas bred at the Conservation and Research Center to foreign zoos. Starting in 1994, the practice shifted from commercial leasing tours to collaborative scientific research and conservation. However, zoos were still required to pay fees.

The National Zoo first partnered with the CWCA in December 2000 through a Giant Panda Cooperative Research and Breeding Agreement, marking the arrival of giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. This original 10-year agreement with the CWCA has been extended three times since 2010.

As per the agreement’s terms, the Zoo is obligated to pay China an annual fee of $500,000. Moreover, both the pandas and their offspring are considered the property of China. If any panda were to die unexpectedly, their remains would also belong to China.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian have welcomed millions of visitors during their 21 years at the National Zoo. They have had a total of seven cubs, with four surviving. Tai Shan, Bao Bao, and Bei Bei have previously returned to China. Xiao Qi Ji, born in August 2020, will leave with his parents after the contract ends.

The giant panda, as a friendly ambassador, has witnessed the ups and downs of U.S.-China relations over the past 50 years. However, in February of this year, just as relations faced challenges like trade disputes and the “spy balloon” incident, the unexpected death of the giant panda Le Le at the Memphis Zoo exacerbated tensions.

A joint examination by Chinese and American experts concluded that Le Le died of heart disease. However, by this time, Chinese internet public opinion had already shifted its focus to another panda residing in the Memphis Zoo, named Ya Ya. Appearing to have dry, coarse fur and a thin physique, images prompted widespread suspicions that Ya Ya was being mistreated by the Memphis Zoo.

On the Chinese social media platform Weibo, the hashtag calling for bringing Ya Ya back to China has garnered over 2.1 billion views. The joint statement released by the Memphis Zoo and the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens indicates that the Memphis Zoo has no issues in the care of pandas.

The skin disease of the panda originates from a mite infection. This disease also appeared on Ya Ya’s mother, a panda that lived in Beijing Zoo during her lifetime. Nevertheless, voices questioning the Memphis Zoo remain the mainstream on Chinese social media.

The incidents involving Le Le and Ya Ya significantly heightened the attention of Chinese audiences toward topics related to pandas. The entire process of Ya Ya’s FedEx plane landing at Shanghai Pudong Airport was broadcast live. Previously, any uncivilized behavior by tourists feeding the pandas at the Chengdu Giant Panda Base was only posted on the base’s bulletin board, but now it usually makes headlines in national media, attracting thousands of condemning comments.

However, such intense focus has also led to challenges in conservation work. On April 29, the China Giant Panda Conservation Research Center released a statement saying, “Panda breeding management is a scientifically rigorous and specialized task. Even professionals can’t judge a panda’s health based on ‘online diagnoses’. Over-anthropomorphizing and excessive empathy from the public can interfere with normal management.” The statement also showcased numerous false rumors and images of the caregivers being harassed.

“We initially started social media accounts and panda live streams to garner public attention for giant panda conservation,” says Qiang Chen, a researcher at the Chengdu Giant Panda Conservation Center, “but it has also brought us some troubles. Viewers sometimes think the giant pandas don’t look the way they imagine and suspect they might be mistreated, whether in zoos abroad or at our base. We’ve put a lot of effort into writing informative articles, but not many people are willing to read them.”

After decades of conservation work, the International Union for Conservation of Nature announced in 2016 that the giant panda was downgraded from “endangered” to “vulnerable” on the global list of species at risk of extinction. Yet, the enthusiasm of the Chinese public for panda conservation remains high after the series of incidents.

For pandas living in zoos abroad, the public demands even higher living standards. This, to some extent, has promoted better living conditions for pandas. However, as stated by the China Giant Panda Conservation Research Center, the vast amount of criticism based on non-professional knowledge can disrupt care routines and add uncertainty to the international exchange of Chinese pandas.

Besides the United States, under public opinion pressure, China has also ceased to continue panda lease agreements with the United Kingdom and Australia. Although the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated in a regular press conference that the decision not to renew the contracts was made by the overseas zoos, the media officer of the National Zoo disagrees with this statement. “We were very hopeful to continue the pandas’ life in Washington, but unfortunately, the Chinese side currently has no intention to renew the agreement.” 

“Watching giant pandas used to be a weekend entertainment activity for our family and often served as a reward for my daughter,” said Alison’s father, “but now, due to diplomatic relations or various reasons, the pandas are gone. It’s not just my daughter who’s sad; I think our whole family feels the loss.”

After experiencing reduced interactions between the United States and China due to the trade war and the pandemic, this month’s APEC meeting in San Francisco, featuring talks between President Biden and Xi Jinping, symbolizes a potential recovery in bilateral relations. Both parties announced new plans, including a large-scale resumption of flights and strengthened cooperation in various fields, starting early next year. Additionally, with the Australian Prime Minister’s visit to China earlier, the first in seven years, resulting in a series of agreements, China seems to be willing to restore friendly relations with the Western world.

However, whether giant pandas, once symbols of Chinese diplomacy, will return to the Western world was not mentioned. According to plans, next year, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia will all experience a “panda gap.”