Could America’s giant panda exodus be reversed? The Chinese president’s comments spark optimism

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FILE – Panda cub Bao Bao hangs from a tree in her habitat at the National Zoo, Aug. 23, 2014, in Washington. Panda lovers in America received a much-needed injection of hope Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, as Chinese President Xi Jinping said his government was ready to continue loaning the black and white icons to American zoos. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
WASHINGTON – Panda lovers in America received a much-needed injection of hope when Chinese President Xi Jinping said Wednesday that his government was “ready to continue” lending the black and white icons to American zoos.
But it wasn’t certain when or where the pandas might be coming, although Xi gave a hint that California zoogoers, especially those in San Diego, might have reason to celebrate.
Here’s a look at where things stand:
U.S. panda woes
The number of giant pandas in American zoos has steadily dwindled as multiple exchange agreements have expired and not been renewed. The San Diego Zoo sent its pandas home in 2019 and the last bear at the Memphis, Tennessee, zoo went home earlier this year. Washington’s National Zoo sent its three pandas — Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their cub, Xiao Qi Ji — to China one week ago.
Currently the only pandas in America are at the Atlanta Zoo, and that loan agreement expires next year. Veteran China-watchers have speculated that the People’s Republic was gradually pulling its bears from American and European zoos due to tensions with Western governments over a host of issues.
Xi on panda diplomacy
Speaking Wednesday at a dinner with business leaders on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco, Xi called the bears “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.”
“We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation, and do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples,” he said, appearing to suggest that the next pair could be coming to San Diego.
He added, “I was told that many American people, especially children, were really reluctant to say goodbye to the pandas, and went to the zoo to see them off.”
Panda watchers encouraged
Although his statement was short on specifics, observers and experts described it as a clear indication that the panda exchange program would be renewed.
“It looks like a pretty strong statement to me,” said Daniel Ashe, CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “That’s very encouraging and we’re anxious to see the next steps.”
Dennis Wilder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues, called it “a victory” and said Xi’s statement sent a clear signal that stalled negotiations with different American zoos could properly begin again.
“What he’s doing is he is giving the green light to the conservation society to go ahead and cut deals,” Wilder said. “If I’m at the National Zoo, I’m probably contacting my counterpart and saying, ‘Can we move forward now?’

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