Three pandas that have been living at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, will be returning to China before the year ends.
What are these notoriously cute bears doing in countries like the United States and United Kingdom in the first place, and why are some of them now being called home?
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Here’s what you need to know about panda diplomacy:
What is panda diplomacy?
China has about 1,800 pandas living in the wild, but it also has at least 65 more that are lent out to just over 20 countries around the world.
The bears were first offered as diplomatic gifts by China as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618–907). The tradition has continued until this century and is often referred to as panda diplomacy.
The US received its first pandas in 1972 after first lady Pat Nixon commented during a state function in China about her love for the animals.
By 1984, panda diplomacy changed. The bears were no longer presented as gifts but instead were loaned for 10 years, a period that could be extended. This shift to panda lending allowed China to keep promoting its image abroad and also build “guanxi”, a Mandarin term for trust. Loaning pandas was seen as promoting mutual partnerships between China and the recipient countries.
In turn, host countries would pay an annual fee of about $1m per bear, and there’s an understanding that panda cubs born abroad would have to be returned to China before their fourth birthdays.
Which countries have panda bears?
Experts at Oxford University who conducted a study on panda diplomacy noticed China leases the bears to countries that it has made trade deals with.
Kathleen Buckingham from Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, asked: ”Why has Edinburgh Zoo got pandas when London Zoo hasn’t? Probably because Scotland has natural resources that China wants a stake in.”
The pandas were sent to Scotland in 2011 after the two countries signed an oil deal.
The list of panda recipients is extensive. Some of the countries included are Denmark, Germany, Russia and Qatar.
“From a Chinese perspective, sharing the care of such a precious animal strengthens the bonds that China has with its ‘inner circle’ of countries,” Buckingham noted.
Why are pandas going back to China?
In the Washington case, the loan agreement comes to an end in December, and the three black and white bears will be returned to China. The agreement had already been extended three times.
Four pandas remain at the Atlanta Zoo, but they’ll also be sent back next year if there’s no extension, meaning it will be the first time in five decades that the US will be without pandas.
Panda bears from Scotland and Australia will also be heading home before the end of the year.
Why are the panda loans not extended?
In the US case, analysts are speculating that the panda recall could be more than just the end of a loan agreement.
Kurt Tong, an analyst with Asia Group consultancy and a former diplomat told the Agence France-Presse news agency: “Given the current tenor of US-China relations, it is not surprising that Chinese authorities are allowing panda contracts with US zoos to expire.”
The US has strong trade deals with Taiwan and continues to sell defence equipment to its military, a move Beijing is less than pleased with.
If the panda return does stem from deteriorating relations, it wouldn’t be the first time pandas have been a reflection of deeper political tensions.
Bears delivered to the US in 2010 were sent back after President Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader living in exile.
And in 2013, after the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 when Malaysian-Chinese ties were strained, China temporarily withheld the delivery of newly leased pandas to the country.
Has a country ever said no to a panda?
Yes, in 2005, Taiwan rejected two pandas offered by China. They were named Tuan-Tuan and Yuan-Yuan, which mean unity and reunion. After the 2008 elections in Taiwan, which brought a new government to power, the pandas were accepted.