The U.S. National Zoo’s three giant pandas are set to return to China in early December. There are no public signs that the 50-year-old exchange agreement made by President Richard Nixon will continue.
China experts say the possible end of the National Zoo’s agreement to keep pandas shows a trend. With diplomatic tensions running high between China and some Western governments, China appears to be slowly pulling back its pandas from Western zoos as their agreements end.
Dennis Wilder of Georgetown University called the trend “punitive panda diplomacy.” Wilder noted that two other American zoos have lost their pandas in recent years. Zoos in Scotland and Australia are facing similar departures with no signs of their loan agreements being renewed.
China currently lends 65 pandas to 19 countries through “cooperative research programs.” The stated mission of these programs is to better protect pandas. The pandas return to China when they reach old age and any cubs born are sent back to China at around age three or four.
The departure of the National Zoo’s pandas would mean that the only giant pandas left in America would be at the Atlanta Zoo. That loan agreement ends late next year.
Wilder said the Chinese possibly could be “trying to send a signal.”
Wilder pointed to a number of disagreements between the sides. The U.S. government has put sanctions in place on well-known Chinese citizens and officials. The U.S. has also placed restrictions on the import of semiconductors made in China. Semiconductors are important parts used in making computing devices.
U.S. officials have said China-produced drugs such as fentanyl are appearing in American cities; U.S lawmakers are suspicious about Chinese ownership of the social media service TikTok. And many Americans were angered over Chinese balloons floating over America.
Wilder said China is convinced that “NATO and the United States are lining up against China.”
The panda-related tension has even appeared in the U.S. Senate recently. Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman appeared to object to China buying American farmland. He said, “…They’re taking back our pandas. You know, we should take back all their farmland.”
Tensions are rising in China. Earlier this year, Le Le, a male panda on loan to the zoo in Memphis, Tennessee, died suddenly in February at the age of 24. Pandas in human care often live to be around 30.
Le Le’s unexpected death caused a lot of anger on Chinese social media services like Weibo. There were widespread claims that the Memphis Zoo had mistreated the animal and its female companion, Ya Ya.
An official Chinese scientific delegation that visited Memphis announced that Le Le was not mistreated and died of a heart condition. Ya Ya was returned to China as planned in April when the loan agreement ended, and she received a big welcome at Shanghai’s airport.
Over the 50 years of American panda loan agreements, the arrangement has had difficulties.
“But the situation now is completely different,” said Daniel Ashe, formerly of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and now chief of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “What we’re seeing now is tensions between our governments at a much higher level, and they need to be addressed and resolved at that level.”
I’m John Russell.
Ashraf Khalil and Didi Tang reported this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
panda – n. a large animal with black-and-white fur that looks like a bear and lives in China
trend – n. a general direction of change
punitive – adj. intended to punish someone or something
resolve – v. to settle or solve (something)