First new pandas to arrive in U.S. in over 20 years are on their way from China

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

A farewell ceremony Wednesday near the Bifengxia Giant Panda Base in China’s southwestern Sichuan province was attended by representatives of both China and the U.S., including San Diego Zoo officials and San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria. The panda crates were then loaded into a truck that drove to the airport in Chengdu, the provincial capital.

Gloria said he was “overjoyed” that pandas would be returning to the San Diego Zoo, which has cooperated with China on pandas for almost 30 years but hasn’t hosted any since 2019.

“It continues our long history of being really positive actors in the conservation of animals generally, but particularly endangered animals, like the pandas used to be,” he told NBC News in an interview at the panda base before the send-off ceremony.

It’s also a step forward for relations between the U.S. 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 issues.

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

The pandas’ departure was surrounded by secrecy to avoid drawing crowds, including fans whose enthusiasm for the bears can verge on obsessive.

San Diego Zoo officials added that the bears, which are on loan for 10 years, would not be viewable by the public for several weeks while they get settled and that their debut date would be shared later.

Two-year-old female giant panda.
Pandas have been a symbol of U.S.-China cooperation for decades.Roshan Patel / Smithsonian’s 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 “pretty outgoing and lively,” said Huang Shan, a giant panda caretaker at the Ya’an facility. “He likes interacting with the caretakers and often runs over when he hears their footsteps.”

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

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

Several pandas living in the U.S. returned to China last year, including three from the National Zoo in Washington, leaving the four bears at Zoo Atlanta the only pandas in the U.S. With the loan agreement for those pandas expiring this year, there were concerns that the U.S. might end up with none of the bears after decades of panda diplomacy with China.

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

“We hopped on the very next flight we could, and came over and had some meetings to learn what that timing might look like,” said Paul Baribault, president and chief executive of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, which runs the zoo.

More pandas are expected to arrive at other U.S. zoos, including in Washington and San Francisco.

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

The pandas also had to be prepared for their 7,000-mile plane journey, getting used to spending time in their crates.

They are being accompanied by caretakers and veterinarians from both China and the U.S., including Americans who came to China earlier and “got to know the pandas well,” Huang said.

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

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

In the U.S., however, they will have to get used to different bamboo varieties than the ones in Sichuan — which may be especially difficult for Yun Chuan, a picky eater.

“It might take them some time initially to adjust to the new diet from the American side,” Huang said. “They may not eat as well in the beginning, but we believe that because the San Diego Zoo has previously fed our pandas, they will adapt quickly.”

In preparation for their arrival, the panda habitat at the San Diego Zoo has been “completely renovated,” said Megan Owen, vice president of conservation science at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. It has grown several times in size and had “a great deal of complexity” added to it.

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

As to when the pandas will be ready for public viewing, it depends on how long they spend in quarantine on arrival and whether they’ll need additional time to adapt 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 reported from Hong Kong.

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