(CNN) – Three giant pandas left their enclosure at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and flew back to China on Wednesday, marking the end of more than 50 years of housing Chinese pandas at the zoo.
The black and white bears — Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and their youngest cub, Xiao Qi Ji — were transported from the zoo in crates and loaded onto a FedEx plane at Dulles International Airport, taking off around 1 p.m.
The Smithsonian National Zoo was the first U.S. zoo to feature pandas as part of what is known as “panda diplomacy.”
Zoo staff call this a “pause” in their popular panda program of five decades; Chinese authorities have not yet said whether this will continue.
And with relations between the two superpowers in constant flux, these national treasures could find themselves a continuation of the diplomatic chaos that has engulfed relations between the two countries.
THE The departure of pandas from the National Zoo leaves Zoo Atlanta as the only other U.S. zoo to feature pandas from China, and it won’t be for long. All four Atlanta Bears’ contracts expire next year, and no extensions are expected.
In this February 21, 1972 file photo, Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, left, and U.S. President Richard Nixon shake hands during their meeting in Beijing.
China acknowledges that the stuffed creatures are used for its “major political and diplomatic needs”, particularly in places where it hopes to gain more influence or closer relations. China says it focuses on conservation and research and says the U.S. program has been productive.
“The two sides have established good cooperative relations, achieved fruitful results and played a positive role in protecting endangered species,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning.
“The aim is to better protect endangered species and promote the conservation of global biodiversity. »
Beijing’s panda diplomacy with Washington began in 1972, following President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China.
Chairman Mao Zedong’s government gifted two giant pandas to the United States in a sign of warming bilateral relations after decades of deep diplomatic freeze.
First Lady Pat Nixon welcomed the pandas to the nation’s capital, saying, “They will be appreciated by the millions of people who come from across the country to visit the nation’s capital each year.” »
Seeing the popularity of pandas increase with Americans, China sent more of them cuddly and charismatic creatures to other zoos in the United States, eventually lending them instead of giving them as gifts.
First lady Pat Nixon welcomes China’s giant pandas on April 20, 1972 at the National Zoo in Washington. She is accompanied by Ting-Hung, head of the Beijing City Public Service Bureau, who accompanied the animals to Washington. In the enclosure is the male panda Hsing-Hsing.
The agreements between China and US zoos stipulate that Beijing owns the pandas and their descendants, and requires payment “for the conservation of giant pandas in China.” The National Zoo pays $500,000 a year; Zoo Atlanta says it has contributed more than $16 million since the start of its program in 1999.
Since giant pandas arrived at the National Zoo in 1972, animal care staff and scientists have studied their biology, behavior, breeding, reproduction and diseases. according to the zoo.
“The zoo’s giant panda team works closely with colleagues in China to advance conservation efforts for giant pandas in human care and in the wild,” the zoo says on its website. website.
At the height of the program, there were 15 pandas in the United States at any one time, but over the past decade the numbers have fallen – coinciding with deteriorating relations between the United States and China. And soon there might be no more pandas in American zoos.
Earlier this year, videos surfaced on Chinese social media claiming pandas returning from the Memphis Zoo were being mistreated. Fueled in part by Chinese state media, these claims have gone viral.
Chinese doctors have defended the zoo’s treatment of pandas, confirming that the giant panda, named YaYa, suffered from a skin disease but was in good health.
But some in China still see it as a symbol of US bullying and oppression of China, while others point out that countries like Russia, which also shelters the animals, are a place where pandas are well treated.
Assuming China chooses not to send more giant pandas and Atlanta sends theirs back next year, by the end of 2024 the only panda in zoos across the Americas would be Xin Xin in Mexico City.
CNN’s David Culver, left, talks with Fernando Gual Sill, general director of the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City.
“For now, come to Mexico!” said Fernando Gual Sill, general director of the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City. “In Mexico, we are lucky to have (a panda), to see it and to enjoy it! »
Pandas around the world
The pandas that are part of the Chinese loan program are meant to serve as sent friendship between China and the host country, the disappearance of the program in the United States may therefore indicate a diplomatic shift.
China’s northern neighbor Russia received a pair of pandas in 2019, with Chinese President Xi Jinping standing alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin to welcome the bears to the Moscow Zoo.
Qatar received its first panda last year.
Steve Schaefer/AFP/Getty Images
Pandas Yang Yang, left, and Lun Lun play together at Zoo Atlanta in November 1999. They have since become parents to seven giant panda cubs born at Zoo Atlanta, according to the zoo.
Including the United States, 23 countries have pandas on loan from China, but this number is declining. Scotland will lose its two pandas in December when the Edinburgh Zoo must send them back to China; Australia Adelaide Zoo only has his two pandas for another year.
The pandas leaving America will head to the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, where conservation efforts have proven successful in recent years. Pandas are no longer on the endangered species list and their population has jumped nearly 17% over the past decade. according to Zoo Atlanta.
Yet the total number of giant pandas in China – 1,864 according to the last census, in 2014 – is considered low for breeding and maintaining a viable population. Only about 61% of China’s pandas are protected by reserves, and their habitat is threatened by logging in established forests, which eliminates the large tree hollows that pandas like to use as dens, Zoo Atlanta says.
Will pandas ever return to the United States?
National Zoo staff hope China will one day be able to send more giant pandas. They even plan to renovate the panda exhibit, which will soon be vacant.
“We are hopeful for the future, which is why we submitted an application that is under review,” said Bob Lee, director of animal care at the National Zoo.
Zoo Atlanta’s panda habitat cost $7 million to build before the Bears arrived in 1999, and assuming the Bears leave at the end of their contracted stay, it will now remain empty. Plans for THE The exhibit, with a welcome sign advertising “Chengdu Giant Pandas” and a panda-themed gift shop, is unclear.
Recalling how pandas first arrived in Washington, zoo visitor Jane Mahalik said she hoped the current first lady would work for their return.
“Pat Nixon brought the pandas here,” Mahalik told CNN, “and Jill Biden should go get those pandas for us.”
CNN’s Yong Xiong reported from Washington, D.C. and New York; Melissa Gray reported from Atlanta; and David Culver reported from Los Angeles and Mexico City. Karol Suarez contributed from Mexico City.