Why US Zoos Are Rapidly Losing Pandas Amid Tensions With China

The US may soon be perpetually panda-less.


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

Juvenile male giant panda Xiao Qi Ji eats a frozen fruitsicle treat inside a specialized travel crate before departing the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C.

Juvenile male giant panda Xiao Qi Ji eats a frozen treat inside a specialized travel crate before departing the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C.

Image credit: Skip Brow/Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

Three giant pandas left a zoo in Washington DC on Wednesday with a one-way ticket to China. This trio isn't the first set of pandas in “the West” to take the monumental journey back to their ancestral homeland in recent times. Against the backdrop of hairy political tensions between the US and China, some are wondering whether this could be the end of “panda diplomacy”.

Two adult pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, and their 3-year-old cub, Xiao Qi Ji, departed from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo on Wednesday and boarded a Boeing 777 (nicknamed the FedEx Panda Express) for a 19-hour flight to Chengdu, according to an announcement from the zoo.


Joining them on their journey, zoo keepers were traveling with approximately 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of bamboo, as well as heaps of special biscuits, fruit, vegetables, and sugar cane. 

The small family will reportedly join some 150 other pandas living at a nature reserve in Sichuan Province, known for its bamboo forests and panda-friendly environment, where the youngster Xiao Qi Ji will enter a giant panda breeding program.

All appears to be perfectly typical on the surface. The zoo claims the pandas are reaching an age when they should return to China. Melissa Songer, a conservation biologist at the zoo, told the New York Times: “They are at the age when they should be in China. I don’t want to have a panda pass away outside of China.”

Giant panda Tian Tian departs the Zoo in a white crate surrounded by zoo keepers and experts.
Time to say goodbye: Giant panda Tian Tian departs the Zoo.
Image credit: Skip Brown/Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

However, it’s hard to ignore this event’s political undercurrent. Since the 1940s, China has engaged in what’s become known as “panda diplomacy,” gifting pandas to other nations as an expression of trust and friendship. Between 1957 and 1983, China gifted 24 pandas as “goodwill ambassadors” to nine nations, including the Soviet Union, North Korea, and the UK. 


They even gave a pair to the US following Richard Nixon’s schmoozy visit to China in 1972, marking a major milestone in their diplomatic relationship. The duo, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, were sent to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and lived there happily until they died in 1992 and 1999, respectively. 

Under the dramatic reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the mid-1980s, which combined socialist ideology with free market enterprise, China revamped its policy to ensure their pandas would be “leased” to friendly countries, not just handed over. If you’ve seen a panda at a zoo in the past few decades, it was still technically the property of the People's Republic of China.

This amicable era of panda diplomacy now appears to be coming to a close. The three pandas recently left Washington DC because their loan agreement had expired, but some experts believe that it’s telling the deal wasn’t simply renewed. 


“In the particular case of the U.S.-China negotiation about the pandas, I suspect it has become the victim of deteriorating relations between the two,” Ho-fung Hung, a global political economist at Johns Hopkins, said in a recent interview on the matter.

“Each renewal of the loan agreement involves negotiation on both sides that outsiders know little about. In the past, renewal was never a problem; most places kept renewing the agreement. But recently, agreements with many zoos around the world were not renewed — not just in the US, but in Europe too. We don't know why the negotiation leads to non-renewal and can only guess,” Ho-fung added.

“I suspect it might be related to the general trend that China has started to feel it should keep the good things to itself rather than sharing, selling, or renting to the world. This happens to rare earth export, accessibility of historical archives, academic databases,” he added.

giant panda leaning over a log
Mei Xiang at her 25th birthday celebration earlier this year.
Image credit: Roshan Patel/Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

San Diego Zoo relocated its pandas to China in 2019 and the last bear at Memphis Zoo returned earlier this year. This leaves just four giant pandas in the US – two adults and their twin cubs at Zoo Atlanta – all of whom are part of a loan agreement set to expire in 2024. It's not known yet whether the contract will be renewed.


Similar things have happened in the UK. At the beginning of 2023, Edinburgh Zoo announced they were sending a breeding pair of pandas back to China.

If international relations continue to break down or stagnate, North America and Europe could soon find themselves perpetually panda-less. That being the case, however, panda bear trading isn't likely to be very high on anyone's priority list. 

“This deterioration of relations between the US and China resembles the shift from cooperation to rivalry between the UK and Germany at the turn of the 20th century,” Hung continued.

“In the late 19th century, the UK and Germany were close partners in all kinds of issues. Their elite, including the royal families, even married one another. But in the 1900s and 1910s, the two countries became competitors in business, finance, and geopolitics, leading to war. We should learn from history and try to prevent the deteriorating relations between the US and China from developing into military conflict,” he concluded. 


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  • Smithsonian National Zoo,

  • panda diplomacy