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Sunday, February 18, 2024

As Pandas Depart D.C., Is Panda Diplomacy Over?


The 2 grownup pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, and their 3-year-old cub, Xiao Qi Ji, are scheduled to be loaded into crates that day and pushed in vans to a FedEx Boeing 777 known as the Panda Categorical.

They may then be flown 19 hours from Dulles Worldwide Airport to China, the place they may be part of about 150 different pandas in a lush nature protect within the misty mountains of Sichuan Province.

And with that, an period of panda diplomacy will finish, a minimum of for now.

It started when Patricia Nixon, the primary woman, talked about her fondness for pandas — “I really like them” — to China’s premier, Zhou Enlai, through the landmark go to she and President Richard Nixon made to Beijing in 1972. Inside two months, China had despatched a feminine and a male panda, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, to the Nationwide Zoo.

The panda presence in Washington has endured ever since as a logo of the ties between the USA and China.

The black-and-white fur balls which may as properly be waddling stuffies had all the time struck me as pure diplomats: Once I was residing and dealing in Beijing, I took my household to the panda analysis heart within the metropolis of Chengdu, and my 3½-year-old daughter developed a permanent obsession with them.

However U.S.-China tensions have been rising for years, and now there may be hypothesis that China is asking for the return of the pandas due to the diplomatic deep freeze.

Zoo officers and scientists say the precise purpose comes all the way down to biology, or “panda time.” The three pandas, they are saying, are every at an age when they need to be going again to China.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived in 2000, about one 12 months after Hsing-Hsing was euthanized on account of kidney illness and eight years after Ling Ling’s passing from coronary heart failure. The 2 new pandas stayed for a decade underneath the primary formal pact, then remained underneath two consecutive five-year agreements. That final one ended early within the pandemic, and the associate affiliation in China agreed to a three-year extension, which is about to run out.

Mei Xiang gave start in August 2020, at an age when scientists had thought she would not be capable of have a child. And so the cub was named Xiao Qi Ji, or Little Miracle. He was her fourth surviving cub born in Washington.

Zoos that host pandas exterior of China normally comply with ship cubs again earlier than they flip 4, and to ship adults again when they’re aged — Mei Xiang is 25 and Tian Tian 26.

“They’re on the age when they need to be in China,” mentioned Melissa Songer, a conservation biologist on the zoo who has labored with the pandas for 23 years. “I don’t wish to have a panda cross away exterior of China.”

Zoo Atlanta now has the one large pandas in the USA — mother and father and twin cubs — however they’re anticipated to return to China subsequent 12 months. An growing older mom and her son in San Diego Zoo returned in 2019, and Ya Ya, a feminine panda in Memphis Zoo, flew again this April. Her companion, Le Le, was on account of return along with her however died in February from coronary heart illness at age 25, an occasion that infuriated some Chinese language residents.

It takes greater than bamboo groves to host a panda. For starters, the Nationwide Zoo paid a price to a Chinese language conservation associate of $500,000 per 12 months for a pair (down from $1 million throughout Mei Xiang and Tian Tian’s first decade right here).

Regardless of the prices, the 4 American zoos which have constantly hosted pandas have labored with two separate conservation teams in China to safe the agreements. Ms. Songer mentioned the Nationwide Zoo intends to ask its associate, the China Wildlife Conservation Affiliation, for a brand new pair.

When requested about that prospect, Liu Pengyu, the Chinese language Embassy spokesman, didn’t reply. However he did say that big pandas are “friendship ambassadors of the Chinese language individuals” and that the collaboration between China and the Nationwide Zoo “has performed an necessary function in enhancing the mutual understanding and friendship between the Chinese language and American peoples.”

Zoo officers mentioned they’d not requested the State Division to get entangled, nor did they intend to prod President Biden to place in a phrase with Xi Jinping, China’s chief, when the 2 meet in California subsequent week.

Till not too long ago, pandas had been thought-about endangered, and so scientists on the Nationwide Zoo researched reproductive cycles to assist with panda breeding. Ms. Songer mentioned a feminine panda is fertile for just one or two days annually, and scientists monitor hormone ranges utilizing urine samples to find out when to do synthetic insemination. That’s how Little Miracle was born.

“We have now it found out, China has it found out,” Ms. Songer mentioned. “It’s been an enormous success to breed them underneath human care.”

The panda inhabitants in China has grown, and now scientists are experimenting with reintroducing pandas into the wild.

Early Sunday morning, my daughter, Aria, now 11, and I watched as mom, father and son lumbered round their separate indoor and out of doors enclosures, chewing on bamboo, tumbling with plastic balls and clambering over boulders.

They regarded about as cuddly because the stuffed pandas that Aria slept with each evening. Aria regaled me with countless panda trivia: “Do you know that they eat 14 hours a day?”

The crowds ballooned, creating a way of panda-monium.

Some had been coming day by day, and a few had been making a repeat go to after popping in through the nine-day Panda Palooza competition earlier this fall. Others had heard the pandas had been leaving and had traveled a whole bunch or hundreds of miles to catch a glimpse.

“This would be the solely animal I take a look at all day,” mentioned Denise Fesser, 47, who had pushed almost three hours that morning from New Jersey. She had a zoo membership due to the pandas and visited a number of instances a 12 months. When she travels overseas, she flies out and in of Washington so she will see them.

“Xiao Qi Ji is probably the most enjoyable to observe,” she mentioned as she shot just a few images of him utilizing a zoom lens. “It was a kind of moments of pure pleasure when he was born through the pandemic.”

The Allen household drove eight hours from Charlotte, N.C., to see the pandas for the primary time.

“I watched the panda cam day by day through the pandemic,” mentioned one of many kids, Anna Kate, referring to cameras that the zoo had arrange years in the past to broadcast a panda actuality present on-line.

“Possibly they’ll work out make a pact for them to return again right here to their residence,” her mom, Gillian Allen, mentioned. She paused. “However China is basically their residence.”

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