The Chinese president's comment about pandas fueled optimism that the program with the US will continue

In remarks last Wednesday at a dinner with business leaders on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco, Xi called the pandas "ambassadors of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples."

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Panda photographed on November 8 in the zoo in Washington, Photo: Reuters
Panda photographed on November 8 in the zoo in Washington, Photo: Reuters
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

Panda lovers in America received a much-needed injection of hope when Chinese President Xi Jinping said his government was "ready to continue lending" the beloved animals to American zoos.

But it's not certain when or where the pandas will arrive, although President Xi hinted that visitors to zoos in California, especially those in San Diego, could have reason to celebrate.

And right now things are like this:

The number of giant pandas in US zoos has gradually declined as numerous exchange agreements have expired and not been renewed.

The San Diego Zoo sent its pandas home in 2019, and the last panda at the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee went home to China earlier this year.

The National Zoo in Washington sent its three pandas Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their cub Xiao Qi Zhi to China a week ago.

Currently, the only pandas in America are those at the Atlanta Zoo, and the loan agreement for them expires next year.

Experts who follow China speculate that China is gradually withdrawing its pandas from American and European zoos due to tensions with Western governments over a range of issues.

In remarks last Wednesday at a dinner with business leaders on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco, Xi called pandas "ambassadors of friendship between the Chinese and American people."

"We are ready to continue our cooperation with the US on panda conservation and do our best to fulfill the wishes of the people of California to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples," Xi said, in what appeared to be a hint that the next pair of pandas would could be sent to San Diego.

"I was told that many Americans, especially children, said a really reluctant goodbye to the pandas, and went to the zoo to see them off," Xi said.

Although he did not say anything concrete, observers and experts estimated that this was a clear hint that the panda exchange program could be renewed.

"That seems like a pretty strong statement to me. It's very encouraging and we're looking forward to the next steps," said Daniel Asch, general director of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Denis Walder, a fellow at the US-China Dialogue Initiative on Global Issues at Georgetown University, called Xi's statement a "victory" and said it sends a clear signal that stalled talks with various US zoos can get back on track. they start.

"He hereby gives the green light to the conservation society to start making agreements. If I were at the National Zoo, I would probably already contact my colleague from the Chinese side and ask him if we can move on now," Valjder said.

Wilder said Xi's specific mention of California could be because he was addressing a California audience, but it could also be because of California Governor Gavin Newsom's recent visit to China.

Whatever the reason, San Diego Zoo officials have high hopes.

"We are excited to hear that President Xi has committed to continuing our two countries' giant panda conservation efforts, and that he is paying attention to the wishes of the people of California and the San Diego Zoo to return the giant pandas," said Paul Baribeau, president and director of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

"Conservation starts with people and our team is committed to working with our partners to welcome a new generation of giant pandas into our zoo, and continue our joint efforts to conserve wildlife, and inspire millions of people around the world to protect the planet we all share." he said.

The Smithsonian National Zoo is the first American institution to receive giant pandas.

The first pair of pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing arrived in 1972. The last pair and their cub were returned to China on November 8.

"This is a moment of some sadness. But it's also a moment of joy as we celebrate the success of the longest-running single-species conservation program in the world," said Brandi Smith, director of the National Zoo.

Officials at the National Zoo in Washington declined to comment on the status of any negotiations to bring the pandas back to Washington, and attempts to reach them for comment on Xi's statement were unanswered.

But Wilder said he expects the National Zoo will also be selected for the program because of its prominent status in the US capital, plus its decades of experience caring for pandas.

In China, public opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of bringing all the pandas back from America. When Le Le, a male panda loaned to the Memphis Zoo, died suddenly in February, it sparked a massive online campaign in China accusing Americans of mistreating the animals.

Wilder said that China's state media, which helped create anti-American sentiment, could easily reverse its stance.

"Chinese propaganda can change in an instant. They're really good at reframing the story. What they can do in their domestic media is say, 'Our benevolent leader is giving Americans a second chance,'" he said.

Since it seems that the political hurdles have been removed and the green light has been given from the very top, things could quickly start moving in the continuation of the panda program.

"When something comes from the supreme leader of China, things move. Now everything will move quickly," Valjder said.

But the exact arrival time of the pandas could depend on the physical readiness of a zoo to accept and care for these animals. The San Diego Zoo has been without a panda for four years and may need to renovate and upgrade its facilities. The National Zoo in Washington has announced plans to renovate its panda house and environment, but it's not clear when that is planned.

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