Panda-monium returns: Smithsonian’s National Zoo will have pandas once again

A giant panda bear cub sitting in a tree

WASHINGTON — The pandas are returning to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

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The giant pandas will be returning to the Washington D.C. zoo by the end of the year, the Smithsonian said Wednesday morning.

“By the end of 2024 ... the species is set to make its triumphant return to Washington, D.C., bringing a yearlong panda drought in the nation’s capital to a close,” the institution wrote.

The China Wildlife Conservation Association will loan a pair of pandas — Bao Li and Qing Bao — to the zoo as part of a decade-long breeding and research agreement, WRC reported.

They will live here until April 2034, The Washington Post reported. The zoo will pay $1 million a year to the CWCA while they are in America.

Bao Li is the son of Bao Bao, a panda that was born at the National Zoo in 2013. He is the grandson of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the panda pair that had also lived at D.C. zoo until last year, when they were returned to China, the Post reported.

“The male, Bao Li, has very similar qualities to some of our previous pandas, given that he’s related to them,” James Steeil, the National Zoo’s supervisory veterinary medical officer said. “You can kind of see some of that personality play out. He likes to roll around. He likes to play in water. He likes to eat.”

Steeil added, “Qing Bao is a little bit more reserved.”

Qing Bao means “green” and treasure” while Bao Li means “treasure” and “energetic.” They are both 2 years old and still have few years before they can breed. They are considered sexually mature at between 4 and 7 years old. If they do end up having cubs, those cubs will be returned to China by the time they are 4 years old.

Qing Bao and Bao Li will fly from China to Washington later this year via a special FedEx cargo plane. Once they get to the U.S., they will be in quarantine for at least 30 days and will have to get used to their new home before being seen by the public. The date will be announced “as soon as the animal care team feels the bears are ready to meet visitors.”

The enclosure at the National Zoo is being renovated for its new inhabitants, zoo officials said. There will be “new rock features with shallow pools, bamboo stands for foraging and multi-level climbing structures.”

Pandas first came to the U.S. on loan from China more than 50 years ago as part of what was called panda diplomacy.

It all started in February 1972 when then-first lady Pat Nixon commented about the pandas during a trip to China.

She had seen a cigarette tin with pandas on it. She told the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai “Aren’t they cute? I love them.” The official responded, “I’ll give you some.” Nixon asked, “Cigarettes?” and Zhou responded, “No, pandas,” according to the Smithsonian.

In April 1972, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were sent to the zoo and within the first month of their arrival, more than one million people visited them. They had five cubs, but none lived more than a few days. Ling-Ling died of heart failure in 1992; Hsing-Hsing was euthanized seven years later in 1999 after suffering from kidney disease and other age-related issues.

The zoo had no pandas for a year until Mei Xian and Tian Tian were loaned by China in 2000, the Smithsonian said.

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