China wants to take all pandas from American zoos
Three pandas live at the Asia Trail Zoo in Washington, DC. Their images can be seen on T-shirts, trucker caps and refrigerator magnets. A 50/XNUMX camera broadcasts every step of the trio. Even the QR code for booking tickets to the zoo features a silhouette of a panda. Now, more than XNUMX years later, the Washington pandas are leaving—perhaps for good. Writes about this Bloomberg.
The zoo's three pandas are due to return to China in December as a three-year agreement with China's wildlife agency expires this month. This applies not only to the US capital. Three other US zoos that keep Chinese pandas (in Atlanta, San Diego and Memphis) have either transferred their pandas or will return them to China by the end of next year.
While both sides deny that politics are at play, China has long used “panda diplomacy” to woo favor, reward friends and punish foes. And the potential loss of the last of America's pandas comes at a time when relations between the United States and China have reached historic lows, with most avenues of cooperation cut off.
At the same time, any hope that Washington will get more pandas rests on the latest signs that relations may be getting a little better, or at least not getting worse.
“It makes some sense that by next year all the pandas in the United States will go back to China,” says Elena Songster, a professor at St. Mary's College in California and author of Panda Nation, a book about China's bamboo bear policy. - They have a plan. They know what they're doing."
Zoos do not receive full custody of pandas. Instead, they lease them, signing contracts to pay China hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.
After years of extending those contracts, the Smithsonian Institution, which oversees the Washington Zoo, has failed to do so until now, even with the deadline fast approaching. Earlier this year, the Memphis Zoo's Ya Ya panda became the subject of a nationalist frenzy back home. This included allegations of abuse after pictures showed her looking emaciated and her fur dirty. The animal, which the US and China said was healthy, returned home in April.
The United States received its first pandas after President Richard Nixon normalized relations with China in 1972, and many countries followed suit. A 2013 study found a correlation between uranium deals and the provision of pandas to Canada and France. In 2018, China donated pandas to Finland in honor of the centenary of that country's independence.
“They have gone from goodwill gestures of Nixon-era diplomacy to today's emblems of discord,” said Lizzie Lee, a fellow in the China Economy Program at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “Pandas have become canvases for narratives of mistrust and rivalry.”
There are many non-political reasons why pandas might come home. One is that all the bamboo bears leaving American zoos have reached the age where they would return home anyway. The departure of some pandas was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With bamboo bears no longer listed as endangered, China is creating its own network of national parks and may not feel the need to send them overseas for conservation and breeding.
What will happen next to the Washington Zoo is still unclear. The move can be temporary, as happened in 1999, when the menagerie was left without pandas for a year. Or China could offer them as a reward in future diplomatic negotiations.
Both China and the US are keeping the door open for a possible return. That matches early signs that the relationship may be reversing its sharp decline.
US President Joe Biden's goal remains a personal meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the wait for which has been dragging on for almost a year. This year, Xi will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in San Francisco, and it is possible that he will bring with him a promise to increase the number of pandas for American zoos.
A spokeswoman for the National Zoo declined to comment on whether new negotiations were underway. But one person familiar with the Biden administration's thinking said the U.S. plans to discuss the issue with China between now and Washington's pandas go home.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington suggests the possibility of a successful outcome.
“Many good results have been achieved in breeding, disease prevention and control, technical exchange and public awareness,” said embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu. According to him, the two sides are "in talks about future cooperation in the field of conservation and research of giant pandas."
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Asked about the prospects for further negotiations, a State Department spokesman said the agreement on pandas was not between the government, but between the National Zoo and the China Wildlife Conservation Association. According to him, the previous cooperation was “a gesture of goodwill on both sides.”
People who visited the zoo reacted with sadness to the impending departure of the pandas. Among them was Elizabeth Thoms, a stay-at-home mom from Silver Spring, Maryland, who brought her children to the zoo for the second time in a month this week after learning the pandas were going home.
“My daughter says they are the most unusual creatures in the zoo, and coming from a four-year-old, that’s a very nice compliment,” Toms said.
Her daughter, Nat, giggled as she watched the National Zoo's youngest panda, Xiao Qi Ji, try - and fail - to climb a tree.
“They’re just idiots,” Nat stated.
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