By the end of this summer, China plans on sending the beloved animals to the zoo, which has been panda-less since 2019.

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Giant Panda

Courtesy of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

International diplomacy seems like a distant concept removed from our everyday lives—until it impacts our pandas. As tensions rose between the U.S. and China over diplomatic issues at the end of 2023, the foreign power refused to renew several panda agreements with American zoos, and many feared the U.S. would become nearly panda-less in 2024 with just four giant pandas remaining on U.S. soil at Zoo Atlanta.

But last week, the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (SDZWA) made a surprising announcement that the China Wildlife Conservation Association plans to send a new pair of giant pandas to the San Diego Zoo, potentially as soon as this summer, as long as all agreements and permits are approved. China, who considers giant pandas to be a “national treasure,” also signed an agreement to send the adorable black-and-white animals to the Madrid Zoo in Spain, and they’re in talks with zoos in Washington, D.C. and Vienna, continuing the decades-old tradition of “panda diplomacy” with Western nations.

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Giant Pandas Bai Yun and Zhen Zhen
Bai Yun and her cub Zhen Zhen in the San Diego Zoo in 2008.

Courtesy of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

For nearly 30 years, the SDZWA has worked with researchers in China to protect and recover giant pandas, whose status improved from endangered to vulnerable in 2016. Their collaboration has increased scientific understanding of giant panda biology, care and wellness, and what pandas need to thrive in a changing climate, according to a statement from SDZWA.

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“We are humbled by the potential opportunity of continuing our collaborative conservation efforts to secure the future for giant pandas,” says Vice President of Conservation Science Dr. Megan Owen in the statement. “As such, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is taking important steps to ensure we are prepared for a potential return.”

If you’ve ever visited the San Diego Zoo, you might remember Bai Yun, the female from the first panda agreement between the zoo and China. She arrived in 1996 on a research loan for two giant pandas, who quickly had their first cub in the zoo. Bai Yun went on to have five other cubs born at the zoo with her other mate, Gao Gao, making the pair the most reproductively successful panda parents in captivity. Some of the pandas were gradually sent to China, their native homeland, until the research loan officially ended in 2019, when Bai Yun and her youngest cub, the last pandas at the zoo, were also sent to China. Now, the San Diego Zoo will welcome the new male and female pair, and China may even choose to send a female descendant of Bai Yun and Gao Gao.  

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Giant Panda Xiao Liwu
Xiao Liwu, youngest cub of Bai Yun and one of the last pandas at the San Diego Zoo.

Courtesy of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

While the status of the giant panda population is improving worldwide, there’s still more work to be done. SDZWA says climate change, habitat fragmentation, and population isolation continue to threaten the iconic, adored animal. The new pair of giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo will attract crowds, funds, and attention to the issue, supporting conservation efforts. 

“Pandas in our care and in the care of Chinese colleagues at conservation facilities play an important role as assurance against extinction and loss of genetic diversity in their native habitats, as well as a source population for reintroductions,” adds Owen. “San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is uniquely positioned to collaborate toward a shared goal of creating a sustainable future for giant pandas.”

Go to the SDZWA website to follow the new pandas’ journey and plan your visit to the San Diego Zoo this summer.

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