Panda lovers in America received a much-needed injection of hope when Chinese President Xi Jinping said Wednesday that his government was “ready to continue” lending the black and white icons to American zoos.
But it wasn't certain when or where the pandas might be coming, although Xi gave a hint that California zoogoers, especially those in San Diego, might have reason to celebrate.
Here's a look at where things stand:
U.S. panda woes
The number of giant pandas in American zoos has steadily dwindled as multiple exchange agreements have expired and not been renewed. The San Diego Zoo sent its pandas home in 2019 and the last bear at the Memphis, Tennessee, zoo went home earlier this year. Washington's National Zoo sent its three pandas — Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their cub, Xiao Qi Ji — to China one week ago.
Currently the only pandas in America are at the Atlanta Zoo, and that loan agreement expires next year. Veteran China-watchers have speculated that the People's Republic was gradually pulling its bears from American and European zoos due to tensions with Western governments over a host of issues.
Xi on panda diplomacy
Speaking Wednesday at a dinner with business leaders on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco, Xi called the bears “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.”
“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 said, appearing to suggest that the next pair could be coming to San Diego.
He added, “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.”
Panda watchers encouraged
Although his statement was short on specifics, observers and experts described it as a clear indication that the panda exchange program would be renewed.
“It looks like a pretty strong statement to me,” said Daniel Ashe, CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “That’s very encouraging and we’re anxious to see the next steps.”
Dennis Wilder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues, called it “a victory” and said Xi's statement sent a clear signal that stalled negotiations with different American zoos could properly begin again.
“What he’s doing is he is giving the green light to the conservation society to go ahead and cut deals,” Wilder said. “If I’m at the National Zoo, I’m probably contacting my counterpart and saying, ‘Can we move forward now?’"
San Diego Zoo as front-runner
Wilder said Xi's specific mention of California could have been a result of him speaking to a California audience, but said it could also be due to California Gov. Gavin Newsom's recent goodwill trip to China.
Whatever the reason, San Diego Zoo officials were hopeful.
“We are excited to hear of President Xi’s commitment in continuing the giant panda conservation efforts between our two countries, and his attention to the wish of Californians and the San Diego Zoo to see the return of giant pandas,” said Paul A. Baribault, president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. “Conservation starts with people, and our team is committed to working with our partners to welcome the next generation of giant pandas to our zoo, continuing our joint efforts in wildlife conservation, and inspiring millions worldwide to protect the planet we all share.”
What about the National Zoo?
The Smithsonian's National Zoo was the first U.S. institution to get giant pandas. The first pair, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, arrived in 1972. The latest duo and their cub were returned to China on Nov. 8. "It is a moment with some heartbreak in it,” National Zoo Director Brandie Smith said at the time. “But it is also a moment of joy because we are celebrating the success of the world’s longest running conservation program for a single species.”
National Zoo officials have been consistently tight-lipped about the status of any negotiations to bring pandas back to Washington, and attempts to seek comment on Xi’s statement did not receive a response.
But Wilder said he expected the National Zoo to also be chosen due to the zoo's prominence and status in the nation's capital, plus decades of experience in panda care.
The Chinese reaction
Chinese public sentiment has been heavily in favor of bringing all the bears in America back. When Le Le, a male panda on loan to the zoo in Memphis, died suddenly in February, it touched off a fierce online campaign in China accusing the Americans of mistreating the bears.
However, Wilder said Chinese state media — which helped fuel the anti-American sentiment — could easily pivot.
“Chinese propaganda can turn on a dime. They are really good at reconfiguring a story,” he said. “What they can do in their internal media is basically say, ’Our benevolent leader is giving the Americans a second chance.'”
With the political obstacles seemingly out of the way, and a green light from the very top, the wheels could turn quickly.
“When it comes from the supreme leader in China, it moves," Wilder said. "It will move fast now.”
But the exact timing could be impacted by the recipient zoo's physical readiness to accept and care for the bears. The San Diego Zoo has been panda-less for four years and may need to upgrade or refurbish its facilities. The National Zoo had announced plans to renovate its panda house and outdoor enclosure, but the timing on those plans is unclear.
Associated Press writers Didi Tang in San Francisco and Amy Taxin in Santa Ana, California, contributed to this report.