China-America Giant Panda program ends after 50 years

The China-America Giant Panda program at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC has come to its natural end after 50 years. But maybe a new China-America loan program will commence and continue America’s love affair with the Giant Panda. 

The Atlanta Zoo in Georgia still has its Giant Pandas, although the loan program expires in late 2024. 

The agreement for the loan was that all offspring of any Giant Panda in America, or any other country, are required to travel home to China when they are of travel age. The Atlanta Zoo’s Giant Panda couple Lun Lun and Yang Yang have had five offspring returned to China. There are two offspring still in Atlanta – Ya Lun and Xi Lun. All four of them – the parents and the two cubs – will return to China at the end of 2024.

Giant Panda

The Richard Nixon presidency (1969-1974) and the Chinese government, under the premiership of Zhou Enlai, negotiated a Giant Panda loan and research program in 1972. A partnership was arranged between America and the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Sichuan Province and the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens. China had already been loaning Giant Pandas to other countries way back since the Tang Dynasty (618-907). 

At the Smithsonian National Zoo, three Giant Pandas began their return home to China on 8 November 2023: the couple Mei Xiang and Tian Tian and their three-year-old cub Xiao Qi Ji. The parents had been on loan in America for more than 20 years for panda research. 

The three Giant Pandas were forklifted and placed in three custom-made Fed-Ex crates and flown for 19 hours to Beijing, China, and to a reserve in Chengdu. The 777F plane was called the “Fed-Ex Panda Express.”

The Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is a mammal in the Ursidae family of bears.

The Giant Panda has smooth, thick, black and white fur. It has black patches around its eyes, over it ears, and across its body. It has five fingers and an enlarged bone called the pseudo thumb, which enables it to grip bamboo shoots. Its face is round.

It grows to 120-190 centimetres (48-72 inches) long and 60-90 centimetres (24-36 inches) tall at the shoulder. Its tail measures 10-15 centimetres (4-6 inches). 

The Giant Panda is native to south central China. It prefers the mountain ranges of Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu. It is terrestrial, spending its time on the ground. 

It is crepuscular, active at dawn and dusk. Although it is classified as a carnivorous mammal, it is actually a folivore, eating bamboo shoots and leaves. 

The female is pregnant for 95-160 days, before giving birth to 1-2 live young, called cubs. The cubs are pink, blind, and toothless at birth. Only the mother looks after the young. The cubs gain their fur after about 14 days.  

Giant Panda
Giant Panda
Giant Panda
Giant Panda
Child in a panda costume, Paris

Location of photographs: Berlin Zoo, Germany.

Photographer: Martina Nicolls


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