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San Diego Zoo will receive two new giant pandas from China after nearly all pandas in U.S. were returned

"Panda diplomacy" history between U.S., China
Looking back at 50 years of "panda diplomacy" between U.S. and China 04:16

After nearly all of the giant pandas on loan at U.S. zoos were returned to China, the San Diego Zoo has announced they will get two new pandas from the country. They are expected to arrive this summer.

The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance announced Sunday that its care team leaders visited China and met two giant pandas – Yun Chuan and Xin Bao, who will be cared for at the California zoo.

Yun Chuan is almost 5 years old and is the grandson of Bai Yun, who lived at the San Diego Zoo for 23 years, the zoo said in a news release. His name is a combination of his grandmother's and the province where he came from, Chuan. 

Xin Bao is almost four years old and, like Yun Chuan, was born at China's Wolong Shenshuping Panda Base. The name Xin Bao means "new treasure of prosperity and abundance," and the zoo describes her as "a gentle and witty introvert with a sweet round face and big ears."

"Our conservation partners in China shared photographs and personality traits of Yun Chuan and Xin Bao, but meeting them in person was so special," said Dr. Megan Owen, vice president of conservation science at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. "It's inspiring as people from around the world come together to conserve, protect, and care for these special bears, and we can't wait to welcome them to San Diego."

Giant panda Mei Xiang and her cub Bei Bei(R) play in their enclosure August 24, 2016 at the National Zoo in Washington, DC. These were the most recent pandas to be returned to China last year. Karen Bleier via Getty Images

The China Wildlife and Conservation Association has lent pandas to the U.S. since 1972 – an agreement dubbed "panda diplomacy." Under the agreement, the Smithsonian National Zoo, Atlanta Zoo, Memphis Zoo and San Diego Zoo all received pandas and worked with China on research and conservation projects.

The agreement with the zoos was extended several times. In 1987, San Diego received two pandas for a 100-day visit, but eventually signed a 12-year agreement and received two pandas, named Bai Yun and Shi Shi, in 1996. The agreement kept getting extended and a total of six pandas were born at the zoo. All of them returned to China by 2019.

The Memphis Zoo had a 20-year loan agreement with China, which ended in April 2023, the Associated Press reported.

And the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. started receiving pandas in 1972. In 2023, their agreement ended and the zoo returned two pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, who had been at the zoo since 2000, and their baby Xiao Qi Ji, who was born in 2020.

The Atlanta Zoo is the only zoo in the U.S. to still have pandas on loan from China, but their agreement, which was put in place in the mid-1990s, expires in 2024 and they are expected to return their pandas Lun Lun and Yang Yang and their offspring, Ya Lun and Xi Lun by the end of the year.

The San Diego Zoo said it met with conservation partners from the China Wildlife Conservation Association to discuss research and conservation programs. Over the past 30 years, the zoo has partnered with conservation institutions in China to study the reproductive behavior, physiology, nutritional requirements, habitat needs and genetics of pandas. 

The zoo even developed a panda milk formula, which, along with other research, has helped increase survival rates of baby pandas from 5% to 95%. They also completed the first successful artificial insemination of a giant panda outside of China. 

"Our partnership over the decades has served as a powerful example of how, when we work together, we can achieve what was once thought to be impossible," said Owen. "We have a shared goal of creating a sustainable future for giant pandas."

As of 2023, only 1,864 pandas remain in the wild, mostly in China's Sichuan Province. Breeding programs have been successful and the once-endangered species was upgraded to "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2017, according to the World Wildlife Fund. 

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