In 2024, for the first time in more than 50 years, there will be no pandas in the United States, after zoos in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., return theirs to China — which has been loaning its pandas to countries for decades.
The United States has been engaged in so-called panda diplomacy since 1972, when China gifted two pandas to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., as a gesture of goodwill during President Richard Nixon’s administration.
Since then, zoos across the country have hosted giant pandas for years at a time. But that practice is coming to an end.
Did you know? Giant pandas are China’s national animal. Their life expectancy in the wild is about 15 years, but in captivity they have lived to be as old as 38.
The National Zoo recently announced that its three beloved pandas — Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji — will be returned to China by Dec. 7, when the zoo's three-year agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association ends. The giant pandas have been at the zoo for over 20 years. Usually, the Smithsonian Institution — which operates the National Zoo — renews its panda contracts in order to keep them. But this year officials say such attempts have failed.
Has this happened to the U.S. before?
Yes. Back in April, Ya Ya, a giant panda that had spent 20 years at the Memphis Zoo, was returned after the zoo's loan agreement ended without renewal.
Allegations of neglect against the Memphis Zoo were circulated on Chinese social media, which the zoo emphatically denied.
Meanwhile, Ya Ya’s trip home was closely followed online in both the U.S. and China as her fans in both countries tracked her flight from Memphis to Shanghai.
“An image from Chinese broadcaster Phoenix News was particularly popular among Chinese social media users,” the Associated Press explained at the time. “It showed Ya Ya relieving herself before the trip and leaving the poop as a present for the zoo.”
What about other countries?
Several countries around the world have pandas on loan from China, and they are also due to be returned when their agreements expire.
Officials in Singapore announced that a giant panda cub named Le Le will be returned to China in December. A farewell event for the 2-year-old Le Le is set for Nov. 20.
Similar celebrations were held for Xiang Xiang, a 5-year-old panda who was returned to China from Tokyo's Ueno Zoo in February, and Fan Xing, a 3-year-old panda who was returned to China from a zoo in the Netherlands last month.
A giant panda on loan from China died suddenly in a zoo in northern Thailand in April, six months before she was due to return home.
In July, two new pandas were born in South Korea, but they are considered the property of China and will soon be returned too.