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  4. Some of the last giant pandas in the US are leaving next month. But the National Zoo is betting $1.7 million the bears will be back.

Some of the last giant pandas in the US are leaving next month. But the National Zoo is betting $1.7 million the bears will be back.

Kelsey Vlamis   

Some of the last giant pandas in the US are leaving next month. But the National Zoo is betting $1.7 million the bears will be back.
  • The National Zoo is set to return its panda bears to China in mid-November.
  • Still, the zoo is spending $1.7 million on updating the panda habitat with hopes they will return.

The last of the giant panda bears in the US are set to return to China by the end of next year, but some zoos are banking on "panda diplomacy" and expecting the bears will eventually return.

Panda bears at US zoos have been in the country on loan from the Chinese government, which has gifted or loaned out panda bears as part of its international relations. But the leases on the panda bears are expiring, and have yet to be renewed.

The pandas at the San Diego Zoo left for China in 2019, while the Memphis Zoo pandas went back in April. Washington DC's National Zoo is expected to send its three panda bears to China on November 15, via FedEx. That means the only pandas left in the US will be at the Atlanta Zoo — at least until their lease expires at the end of next year, or until a new deal is made.

"This is perhaps Beijing's way of signaling to the West that they may not be very happy with how things are going," Chee Meng Tan, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia and expert in "panda diplomacy," told The Washington Post.

Relations between the US and China have strained in recent years, and the failure to renew a deal on the pandas could be Beijing's way of expressing their displeasure, Tan said, adding China could be saying: "You're not treating us very well, so maybe we'll pull out our pandas."

Still, the National Zoo is making a big bet that the pandas will eventually return, despite few signals that US-China relations will drastically improve in the near future.

The Smithsonian Institution, which runs the zoo, is proceeding with a $1.7 million plan to renovate its panda habitat, Bloomberg reported. The updates to the enclosure include a new climbing structure, a pool, and more rocks, as well as a smoke evacuation system.

"We are definitely interested in continuing the future of our panda program here," Brandie Smith, the director of the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, told the outlet. "We have let them know we are interested in having, and we do want to continue to have pandas here, into the future, another 50 years of giant pandas at the National Zoo."

If the last of the pandas do leave the Atlanta Zoo next year, it will be the first time since 1972 that there will be no panda bears in the US.


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