By The Washington Post · Michael E. Ruane · NATIONAL, WORLD, FEATURES, ASIA-PACIFIC, ANIMALS
The agreement grants a three-year extension to the stay of the adult giant pandas, Mei Xiang, a female, and Tian Tian, a male, who have been at the zoo for 20 years, the zoo said.
But they and their 4-month-old cub, Xiao Qi Ji, a male, are to go to China by the end of the extension on Dec. 8, 2023.
The agreement means the zoo and the adoring public will have the popular black and white animals for three more years.
But it leaves the future of the National Zoo's almost 50-year giant panda program unsettled.
Zoo director Steve Monfort said he was confident, despite international tensions, that Chinese officials would consider sending more giant pandas to Washington in the future.
He said he was thrilled to have Mei Xiang and Tian Tian for three more years.
The current agreement that has allowed them to stay expires Monday. Giant pandas are native to China, and it owns all giant pandas in U.S. zoos. As with earlier extensions, the zoo will pay the Chinese government $500,000 per year of the new stay, the zoo said.
"We have . . . three more years to really prepare ourselves also for saying goodbye," Monfort said. "These animals are beloved not just by the people who work and care for them, but by millions of people."
"It's great to have them for a little longer but it also is a reminder that that's ephemeral, and they will return to China," he said. "This gives us three years to celebrate that and to get ready for it."
"It's going to be a heartbreak for us," he said. Some keepers have been with the adult pandas their entire careers and will be "absolutely crushed when these animals go away. Lots of tears will flow."
But there will also be a sense of pride at how well the zoo has cared for them, he said.
Montfort, who has been studying giant pandas for 33 years, said the zoo's relationship with Chinese panda experts is solid.
"I went over there in January . . . to Beijing, and we had an excellent meeting with our counterparts there," Monfort said. "It was all good, and we've just been having positive interactions since then."
"We have a 48-year history with pandas, and we'd like to have another many decades of additional collaboration with Chinese colleagues," he said.
"There's no question that, when the time is right, we will approach them and begin discussions about the future of the program after this pair," he said.
"It is our hope that we will have pandas for decades to come," he said. The zoo's relationship with its Chinese counterparts is "such a good and strong partnership that we hope that that could be made possible."
But tensions between the United States and China are ongoing, and President Donald Trump has repeatedly blamed the Chinese for the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, calling the deadly malady the "Chinese virus."
(The zoo is closed because of the virus.)
Monfort said he is not worried.
"There's a lot of concern that people have about the relationship between our two countries, on the political side of things," he said. "That's all very fraught."
"But . . . the relationships that we have with our colleagues on the ground there . . . are very strong professional relationships . . . very productive, very collegial, friendly," he said. "On that level, everything's really great."
"But we can't control politics," he noted.
"I don't believe there's any sign that anyone is interested in politicizing these pandas . . . No one that I've talked to thinks that would be a smart idea . . . It's a winning story . . . Why would you want to disrupt that success?"
"I don't see any sign that anyone is interested in making a political statement via pandas," he said. "I really don't."
By prior agreement with the Chinese, all giant panda cubs born in U.S. zoos must be sent to a breeding program in China by the time they turn 4. So at the end of the new three-year deal the cub, Xiao Qi Ji, would depart with the adults, Monfort said.
"It's just going to make sense to do it all at once," he said.
The zoo has had giant pandas almost continuously since 1972, when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai gave the United States Ling-Ling, a female, and Hsing-Hsing, a male. Both were 18 months old.
In return, the United States sent China two musk oxen, Milton and Matilda, from the San Francisco Zoo. Musk oxen are shaggy natives of the Arctic known for their strong odor.
Ling-Ling died in 1992, and Hsing-Hsing died in 1999. There was a gap of about a year between Hsing-Hsing's death and the arrival of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian on Dec. 6, 2000.
Both Mei Xiang, 22, and Tian Tian, 23, were born at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Sichuan province.
Their Washington debut was spectacular. Several hundred VIPs met their plane when it arrived. Outgoing President Bill Clinton and daughter Chelsea Clinton got an early audience. "They have long claws and very big teeth," the president said afterward.
The conductor of the Washington Symphony Orchestra reportedly wrote a piece called "March of the Giant Pandas." And zoo goers began a romance with the animals that would last more than 20 years.
The estimated life span of a giant panda is about 15 to 20 years in the wild, and about 30 years for those in human care, the zoo said. .
When Mei Xiang gave birth to Xiao Qi Ji on Aug. 21, she became the oldest giant panda to have a cub in North America.
So why does China want two aging giant pandas back?
Monfort said he thinks the Chinese believe they can best take care of older pandas. "They have many, many more pandas," and more experience, he said.
Also, he said Chinese experts feel they have an obligation to care for their giant pandas in their declining years.
"They're very special animals," he said. "They're . . . revered . . . in China, and I think they feel like it's their responsibility to care for them at the end of their lives."
Along with the announcement of the new agreement, the zoo said that benefactor David Rubenstein has pledged another $3 million to its giant panda research program.
Rubenstein has, with this pledge, donated a total of $12 million in support of the giant panda conservation program, the zoo said.