Monday, July 15, 2024

The fur balls might be coming back to Washington and San Diego.

Xi Jinping, China’s leader, said in a speech on Wednesday night that his nation’s best diplomats, giant pandas, might soon return to zoos in the United States that have recently sent bears back to their homeland.

“We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation, and do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples,” he told a gathering of mostly business executives at a dinner in San Francisco.

Mr. Xi pointed out that the pandas are “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.”

Panda-monium gripped the United States last week when the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington sent its two aging adult pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, and their cub, Xiao Qi Ji, or “Little Miracle,” back to China on a 19-hour FedEx flight, the Panda Express.

Police escorts rode alongside the crate-laden trucks to Dulles International Airport, with all the pomp of a presidential convoy zipping around Washington.

The bears were accompanied on the flight by 220 pounds of bamboo, a veterinarian and two zookeepers.

The pandas had been due to go back to China by early December because of the expiration of a three-year pandemic-era extension to a series of agreements between the National Zoo and the China Wildlife Conservation Association, the zoo’s partner in China.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived in Washington in 2000, after the deaths of two pandas given to the zoo as a gift in April 1972 following the historic visit of President Richard M. Nixon and his wife, Patricia, to Beijing. (Over dinner, Mrs. Nixon told China’s premier, Zhou Enlai, how much she loved pandas.)

The zoo originally paid $1 million per year to host Mei Xiang and Tian Tian but renegotiated that to $500,000 per year after the first decade.

Mei Xiang gave birth to Xiao Qi Ji in August 2020. It was her fourth surviving cub to be born in Washington. Each birth took place after scientists carefully monitored her ovulation cycle and did artificial insemination.

Once the zoo announced the pandas would be leaving by mid-November, fans began traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to catch a glimpse of them. Some had been watching the bears daily online via the zoo’s so-called panda cam.

“I was told that many American people, especially children, were really reluctant to say goodbye to the pandas, and went to the zoo to see them off,” Mr. Xi said on Wednesday.

At the National Zoo, the giant panda enclosures in the Asia Trail area now sit empty, and many visitors go instead to see the neighboring red pandas, small fuzzy creatures that resemble raccoons. The giant pandas are a type of bear.

The San Diego Zoo sent its two pandas back in 2019, and the Memphis Zoo sent a panda back this April. Mr. Xi said he had learned that the San Diego Zoo and residents of California “very much look forward to welcoming pandas back.”

Zoo Atlanta now has the only giant pandas in the United States — parents and twin cubs — but they are expected to return to China next year.

Those zoos are the four institutions in the United States that have consistently hosted pandas over the decades. Each negotiates contracts with one of two conservation groups in China. The pandas mainly come from the Wolong National Nature Reserve in the misty mountains of Sichuan Province, where about 150 pandas live, chewing on bamboo for a dozen or more hours a day.

Given the rising tensions between the United States and China in recent years, many Americans have wondered whether geopolitics has spurred Chinese officials to ask for the pandas back. But National Zoo officials and scientists said each of their three pandas was at an age when the bears should be returning.

Officials at the National Zoo said in interviews before the departure on Nov. 8 that they planned to start talks soon to try to get their Chinese partner to send pandas back to the zoo. But the officials said they had no intention of asking Mr. Biden or the State Department to weigh in with China. A zoo spokeswoman said they had no comment on Mr. Xi’s remarks.

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