Will We Ever See Pandas In American Zoos Again?

Written by Justin Sexton
Published: November 13, 2023
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Animals with Opposable Thumbs-giant panda

A panda eats a large bamboo stalk. Giant pandas have a false thumb made up of an enlarged carpal bone.

©Bryan Faust/Shutterstock.com

Earlier this month, the pandas spent their last days at the Smithsonian Zoo in Washington, D.C., and returned back to China via plane. The Smithsonian Zoo was the first zoo in America to have pandas. For fifty-one years, pandas in American zoos were national attractions to visitors all over. At the Smithsonian Zoo, people were holding back tears as they bid farewell to the pandas they knew by name. The pandas brought people closer together, creating a community of panda-watchers who came together to learn about the panda species firsthand.

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Now that the pandas left D.C. in what their staff calls a “hiatus”, Atlanta is the only American zoo to have pandas. And that might not be for long either. Those pandas in Atlanta are scheduled to leave in early 2024 as the zoo’s contracts haven’t been renewed. So when the pandas leave Atlanta, will we see pandas in American zoos again?

Will We Ever See Pandas In American Zoos Again?

The short answer is: it depends.

What does it depend on? It depends on the relationship status between China and The United States.

How Did The Pandas Get To America?

“The Panda Diplomacy” began during the Nixon presidency. CNN cited that China uses its cuddly animals to improve political relations and help with major diplomatic and political needs. Mao Ning, the spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told CNN “The two sides have formed good cooperative relations, achieved fruitful results, and played a positive role in protecting endangered species.”

In 1972, Bejing’s panda diplomacy began with Washington D.C. and the Smithsonian Museum. In exchange for the two giant pandas, Nixon gave China two musk oxen as a gift. On the first day that the pandas were displayed, over 20,000 people came to the museum to see them. Over one million people visited the zoo in the first year they were there. The political move was such a huge success, that the British Prime Minister at the time asked for pandas for the United Kingdom in 1974. A few weeks later, the United Kingdom received their own pandas. The pandas the UK received eventually influenced the logo for the World Wildlife Fund.

The panda’s popularity grew tremendously and in 1996 China decided to start loaning the pandas to the United States for scientific purposes rather than giving them as gifts. The American zoos have paid millions of dollars to keep the pandas at their respective zoos. During the height of the program, there were fifteen pandas at one time at the zoo, but the number gradually reduced over the years.

The Importance Of The Pandas To The Americans

Since 1972, scientists have studied the pandas and their biology, breeding, and behaviors. The Smithsonian Zoo staff works closely with China to collaborate on conservation efforts for giant pandas in zoo environments and the wilderness. If the pandas in Atlanta are removed, the only zoo in the Americas to have pandas would be the zoo in Mexico City.

What About The Pandas Around The World?

China has gifted and/or loaned pandas to 23 other countries including the United Kingdom, Russia, Qatar, and Scotland. Qatar just received its first pandas last year. Some of the countries are returning their pandas back to their homeland. Scotland is returning their pandas at the end of the year; Australia has one more year with its pandas. However, the initiatives to conserve the panda species to prevent them from becoming an endangered species have been successful. According to Zoo Atlanta, the panda population grew by 17% in the past decade.

Yet, the census population of pandas in China is 1,864. It’s a low population for breeding and maintaining a solid population at the moment. The main threat to the panda population is the destruction of their habitats via logging.

So to ask the question again, will we see pandas in American zoos again? It depends. The Smithsonian Zoo is currently doing renovations for its panda exhibit and they have filed an application to have the pandas return back to their other home in D.C. For the Atlanta Zoo, they’re unsure of what to do if/when the pandas will leave. They have a panda gift shop along with a large welcoming sign that says “Giant Pandas of Chengdu” at the zoo. People are very hopeful that the pandas do return and hope that the first lady Jill Biden bring the pandas back.

Axios provided a wonderful infographic of the pandas in major American zoos such as Atlanta, San Diego, Washington D.C., and Memphis. All of San Diego’s pandas returned to China, one of Memphis’s pandas died at the exhibit, and the Atlanta zoo is expecting all their pandas to leave in early 2024.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © lotushkco/ via Getty Images

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About the Author

Justin is an A-Z Animals Writer that loves to cover places, unique natural disasters, and travel. He has eight years of experience as a writer in the medical and media fields. He wrote for the likes of VCU Health, theMSQshop, PayDay LA, and Comic Book Resources under the penname Jay Guevara. Although he's a full time writer, Justin graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2019 with a Bachelors in Health, Physical Education, and Exercise Science with a background in Community Engagement. After spending over two decades in Richmond, Virginia, Justin now resides in the suburbs of Rancho Cucamonga, California. He's a dedicated gymrat. He's also a two-time poetry author who's influenced by rappers Joe Budden and IDK along with Dante Alighieri.

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