On August 23, 2013, a giant panda named Mei Xiang gave birth to a cub at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., grabbing the world’s attention. Giant pandas are an endangered species, with only a few hundred living in captivity and an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 living in the wild. Most of the giant pandas in captivity (and all of the ones in the wild) are in China, but if you’d like to see one elsewhere, many zoos across the world have a few. In the U.S., the National Zoo now has three, Zoo Atlanta has four, and the San Diego Zoo has two. There are also giant pandas in zoos in Canada, Mexico, Austria, Spain, Australia, Singapore, and a half dozen or so other countries.
But they don’t really live there — at least not permanently. They’re all on vacation of sorts. Mei Xiang and the others are all owned by China, as part of a lucrative panda lending program.
Originally, China gave pandas to others — no strings attached. Starting in the 1950s, the Chinese government used the popularity (and adorableness) of giant pandas to curry favor with other nations, by gifting the creatures to governments around the world. In 1972, for example, China gave two giant pandas to the United States as thanks for President Nixon’s visit to their nation (which itself historically began to normalize the relationship between the two). First Lady Pat Nixon ensured that those two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, were housed at the National Zoo. The program was very successful. Other countries — many who had little in the way of relations with China — asked for pandas as well. But in 1984, China stopped giving pandas away. Instead, the Chinese government began loaning them out.
Under the terms of the revised Chinese plan, zoos were offered pandas only for a ten-year period. (There’s some evidence that renewals are possible.) Because all the pandas now in captivity outside of China were born after the 1984 change, “all giant pandas outside China are actually on loan from the country,” as NPR points out. The cost of renting a panda is $1,000,000 per year, to be payable to China’s Wildlife Conservation Association. And, perhaps most strikingly, the lease agreement requires that any cubs born to loaned-out pandas be returned to China. So if Mei Xiang’s recent addition survives, the baby will likely go back to China at some point early on in its life. The good news, though, is that the baby will be reunited with its brother. Tai Shan, a panda born to Mei Xiang in 2005, was returned to China in 2009.
Bonus fact: How do pandas go from China to points abroad, and back? They fly FedEx. As seen here, FedEx has what a corporate blog post called their “Panda Express.” The plane used has a big picture of a panda eating leaves painted on the side, and the pandas themselves fly in a crate with transparent side walls.
From the Archives: Hidden Messages: The FedEx logo that isn’t there.
Related: Panda Kindergarten: I think it’s a children’s book but really, I’m sharing it here because the cover art is a bit too cute to not share.