The first new pandas to arrive in the United States in more than 20 years come from China

YA’AN, China — The first new giant pandas to arrive in the United States in more than two decades are heading to San Diego from China, as Beijing resumes using black and white bears as a diplomatic tool.

A farewell ceremony near the Bifengxia giant panda base in southwest China’s Sichuan Province on Wednesday was attended by representatives from China and the United States, including officials from the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria. The panda crates were then loaded onto a truck which drove to the airport in Chengdu, the provincial capital.

Gloria said he was “thrilled” that the pandas were returning to the San Diego Zoo, which has cooperated with China on pandas for nearly 30 years but has not housed any since 2019.

“This continues our long history of being really positive actors in the conservation of animals in general, but particularly endangered animals, like pandas,” he said in an interview at the panda base before the farewell ceremony .

It is also a step forward for relations between the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies, as they try to repair ties strained by disputes over trade, technology, the status of Taiwan and ‘other questions.

“It’s a wonderful way to engage our two countries in something that is undeniably positive,” Gloria said.

The pandas’ departure was shrouded in secrecy to avoid drawing crowds, including fans whose enthusiasm for the bears can border on obsession.

San Diego Zoo officials said the bears, on loan for 10 years, would not be visible to the public for several weeks while they settle in, and their start date would be shared later.

Two-year-old female giant panda.
Pandas have been a symbol of cooperation between the United States and China for decades.Roshan Patel / Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

The two bears are Yun Chuan, a 4-year-old male, and Xin Bao, a 3-year-old female. Yun Chuan’s mother, Zhen Zhen, was born at the San Diego Zoo in 2007.

Yun Chuan is “quite outgoing and lively,” said Huang Shan, a giant panda keeper at the Ya’an center. “He enjoys interacting with the keepers and often rushes when he hears their footsteps.”

Xin Bao is “a little more introverted, but she’s very smart and alert,” Huang said. “She pays close attention to sounds like birds singing and insects buzzing. »

The two pandas “seem to like each other,” he said, spending “quite a long time” interacting via a communication tunnel during their quarantine before departure.

Several pandas living in the United States returned to China last year, including three from the National Zoo in Washington, leaving the four bears from Zoo Atlanta as the only pandas in the United States. With the loan deal for them expiring this year, there was concern that the United States could be left without any bears after decades of panda diplomacy with China.

Hopes were raised in November when Chinese President Xi Jinping suggested during a visit to California that more pandas could be on their way to the United States, and specifically to San Diego.

“We took the next flight we could and came and had a few meetings to figure out what that timing might look like,” said Paul Baribault, president and CEO of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, which manages the zoo.

Other pandas are expected to arrive at other American zoos, including Washington and San Francisco.

During their quarantine period in China, Yun Chuan and Xin Bao received medical care and training, including learning English commands.

They also had to prepare for their 7,000-mile plane trip, getting used to spending time in their crates.

They are accompanied by keepers and veterinarians from China and the United States, including Americans who came to China earlier and who “knew the pandas well,” Huang said.

The Chinese team will spend about three months in San Diego helping the pandas get settled.

The pandas will be well fed during their journey. “We prepared a variety of delicious, well-textured bamboo shoots, along with carrots, apples, cornbread and their favorite bamboo,” Huang said.

In the United States, however, they will have to get used to different varieties of bamboo than those in Sichuan — which can be especially difficult for Yun Chuan, a picky eater.

“It may take them some time at first to adapt to the new diet on the American side,” Huang said. “They may not eat as well at first, but we think that because the San Diego Zoo has already fed our pandas, they will adapt quickly.”

In preparation for their arrival, the San Diego Zoo’s panda habitat was “completely renovated,” said Megan Owen, vice president of conservation science at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. It has been multiplied several times and has been enriched with “great complexity”.

“We included topographical features that are similar to what you might see here,” she told Ya’an, such as steep slopes, lots of trees and other foliage.

As for when the pandas will be ready for public display, that depends on how long they spend in quarantine upon arrival and whether they will need more time to adjust to their enclosure.

“It’s up to them to let us know when they’re ready,” Owen said.

Janis Mackey Frayer reported from Ya’an, China, and Jennifer Jett from Hong Kong.

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