How ‘Panda Diplomacy’ Led To Conservation Success

29:36 minutes

An adult panda sits in the grass with a cub about 1/3 her size by her feet. The cub is rolling on its back playfully.
Giant panda Mei Xiang and her cub together in a grassy yard outdoors. Credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo

In 1972, pandas arrived at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, DC, to huge fanfare. Since then, pandas have been some of the city’s most beloved residents.

But for the first time in more than 50 years, DC is panda-free—indefinitely. Mama panda Mei Xiang, papa bear Tian Tian, and their youngest cub Xiao Qi Ji returned to China in November when their leases ended. This is possible because all but a few pandas residing outside of China are on loan through agreements with the country.

A white man and woman open a photo album of pandas by a podium with the Smithsonian's logo on it. A Chinese man stands behind the podium, looking at the others.
First Lady Patricia Nixon at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo on April 20, 1972, for the official welcome ceremony for giant pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. Photo courtesy of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

It’s not just the National Zoo waving its pandas goodbye—the Memphis Zoo’s single panda returned to China in April, and Zoo Atlanta’s pandas will go later in 2024. The news of the pandas’ departure seemed sudden, and it stirred up some questions: Why are the pandas leaving? And why now?

The news resurfaced the idea of panda diplomacy—how China introduced pandas to the world by loaning them out to other countries and using them as a symbol of cooperation.

SciFri producer Rasha Aridi and freelance journalist Aja Drain look back at 80 years of panda conservation, and how panda diplomacy paved the way for groundbreaking science. And they try to answer the multi-million dollar question: Was it all worth it?

This story was produced by Rasha Aridi, with help from Aja Drain. Edited by John Dankosky, with help from D. Peterschmidt and Emma Gometz. All our music and sound design is by D. Peterschmidt.

Special thanks to the experts we spoke with: Dr. Chee Meng Tan, Dr. Pierre Comizzoli, Dr. Mel Songer, Michael Brown-Palsgrove, Dr. Rich Bergl, Dr. Jack Liu, Dr. Binbin Li, as well as Dr. E. Elena Songster, environmental historian at Saint Mary’s College of California, and Dr. Carolyn Lin, professor of communication at the University of Connecticut.

Further Reading:

  • Read more about the cele-bear-ation for the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s pandas before they departed the US.
  • See the best moments from the the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s Panda Cam.

Segment Guests

Chee Meng Tan

Dr. Chee Meng Tan is a researcher at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia.

Pierre Comizzoli

Dr. Pierre Commizzoli is a reproductive scientist at the National Zoo in Washington DC.

Mel Songer

Dr. Mel Songer is a conservation biologist at the National Zoo in Washington DC.

Michael Brown-Palsgrove

Michael Brown-Palsgrove is curator of the Asia Trail and giant pandas at the National Zoo in Washington DC.

Binbin Li

Dr. Binbin Li is a conservation scientist at the Duke Kunshan University in Kunshan, China.

Jack Liu

Dr. Jack Liu is a sustainability scientist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.

Rich Bergl

Dr. Rich Bergl is director of Animal Care, Conservation, Education, and Science at the North Carolina Zoo in Randolph County, North Carolina.

Segment Transcript

CHARLES BERGQUIST: This is Science Friday. I’m Charles Bergquist. Later in the hour, we’ll go under the waves to the world of seaweed. But first, we turn our attention to one of the most beloved animals of all time, giant pandas.

True confession time. When I was small, I didn’t have a Teddy bear. I had a panda puppet that went with me everywhere. And I’m not alone in my devotion to pandas. They’ve captured the world’s attention for decades. Clips of pandas engaged in clumsy frolics regularly go viral on the internet. And their residency at zoos across the world has made them international treasures and diplomats.

But this fall, Washington, DC’s resident pandas returned to China. And it stirred up some questions about why we had pandas in the first place and what this could mean for panda conservation. Reporting from Washington, DC, SciFri producer Rasha Aridi and journalist Aja Drain are here with the story.

RASHA ARIDI: In 1972, pandas arrived at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC to huge fanfare. And since then, pandas have easily become the city’s most beloved residents.


SPEAKER: Oh, it’s the panda.

SPEAKER: Oh, yeah. He’s back there.

AJA DRAIN: But for the first time in more than 50 years, the district is pandaless indefinitely. Mama panda Mei Xiang, Papa bear Tian Tian, and their youngest cub Xiao Qi Ji returned to China in November when their leases ended because China actually owns all the world’s pandas.

SPEAKER: Daybreak in Washington as the National Zoo’s three biggest stars began their long journey home.

SPEAKER: A sad moment for three bears that are leaving with a little piece of our hearts in DC.

SPEAKER: People are so sad that these pandas are gone.

SPEAKER: After five decades, time has run out on the Smithsonian’s panda exchange program with China.

SPEAKER: It’s the end of a conservation effort.

SPEAKER: And now, all these years later, we are bidding our giant pandas farewell.

AJA DRAIN: Early in the morning on November 8, the bear trio climbed into their crates, embarked on a luxury trip to Dulles International Airport in private FedEx vans, and then boarded a VIP one way flight back home featuring in-flight amenities like a couple hundred pounds of bamboo and their favorite snacks like biscuits and apples.

RASHA ARIDI: It’s not just the National Zoo waving their pandas goodbye. The Memphis Zoo’s singular panda returned last April and the Atlanta zoo’s pandas will go later in 2024. The news of the pandas’ departure seemed sudden. And it stirred up some questions like why are the pandas leaving and why now. It’s resurfaced this idea of panda diplomacy, basically China playing politics with pandas by loaning them out and using them as a symbol of cooperation. So today on the show, we are looking back at 80 years of panda conservation, how panda diplomacy paved the way for groundbreaking science and the multi-million dollar question, was it all worth it?

Let’s go back in time to China in the mid-1960s. Mao Zedong’s Communist government was in power with a goal to transform China. Under his rule, millions of people died in the great Chinese famine. And those suspected of being enemies of the Communist Party were persecuted and killed, millions of them. And with all of this going on, Mao aimed to introduce a new China to the world. And to do that, China needed friends.

AJA DRAIN: So as part of its charm offensive, China started gifting pandas, which it refers to as national treasures, to its buddies, like the Soviet Union and North Korea, extending a bamboo branch, if you will.

CHEE MENG TAN: Because imagine if you have a country and there’s nothing much it can offer because it’s not very advanced at that point, technologically speaking. How would you attract attention?

RASHA ARIDI: Dr. Chee Meng Tan is a researcher at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia. He studies Chinese soft power, in this case how China used pandas to charm the world.

CHEE MENG TAN: So all of a sudden when you have something like pandas that are really rare, the appeal is there because it’s something that people thought it’s the stuff of legends.

AJA DRAIN: And the pandas were more than just unofficial ambassadors. They were a hit. People all over the world fell in love with their adorable fluffy faces and their goofy personalities. And people flocked to zoos to catch a glimpse.

As for the United States, it had pandas before. Back in the 1930s, an explorer brought the first panda back from China. And that cub catapulted pandas to international fame. And the first real panda gift given to the US, a male and a female, arrived in 1941 as a thank you for the US’s support in China’s war against Japan. But by the time the ’60s rolled around, the US was panda-free and China had a new government.

Although most other countries didn’t know the full extent of what was happening under Mao’s rule, tensions between the US and China soared nonetheless and Americans at the time had pretty strong opinions on China, not positive ones. The tides changed in 1972 when President Richard Nixon became the first sitting US President to visit China. And during that trip, First Lady Pat Nixon noticed a box of cigarettes with pandas on it or so the story goes. She remarked how cute the pandas were and the Chinese Premier said, I’ll give you some.

RASHA ARIDI: So a few months later, China sent two pandas named Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing to the National Zoo. And it was a big deal. One account described that the panda security was so tight, quote, “as if it were Mao Zedong himself.” And it was Pat Nixon who ended up welcoming the bears to DC.

PAT NIXON: I think pandemonium is going to break out right here at the zoo. Thank you very much.

RASHA ARIDI: And she was right. More than a million people visited the pandas within a month of them arriving. And this worked in China’s favor.

CHEE MENG TAN: The main target is not the government. It’s really the people of a specific country. It was very, very charming and a very good tool.

RASHA ARIDI: Pandas helped Americans warm up to the idea of China by softening its image through these squishy, cuddly, childlike bears. And China has continued its subtle strategy of panda diplomacy though it’s evolved a few times since then. Eventually, China stopped offering pandas as straight up diplomatic gifts and instead loaned them out to zoos for short periods.

AJA DRAIN: The pandas traveled from zoo to zoo every few months like a museum exhibition. And that made boatloads of cash for both the zoos and China. Each loan sent several hundred thousand US dollars to China and US zoos made millions.

RASHA ARIDI: So when that plan came under attack for prioritizing profits over the pandas’ wellbeing, panda diplomacy evolved again,

AJA DRAIN: This time to focus on scientific exchange. Basically, the rule is that the zoos had to contribute to conservation and research. And that’s the model still operating today. It revolved around one goal– save the pandas.

RASHA ARIDI: As panda diplomacy was ramping up, pandas were endangered due to poaching, bamboo die-offs, logging, habitat destruction, and even from China sending them as diplomatic gifts since those pandas were bear napped from the wild. Through gifting pandas to other countries, save the pandas became a global mission and ultimately recruited the help of several countries, millions of zoo goers, and thousands of zoo staff and scientists to do so.

AJA DRAIN: One of the biggest initiatives became making panda babies in captivity, which was no small feat.

RASHA ARIDI: Panda babies are notoriously tricky to conceive, even in the wild. Females only ovulate once a year. So they can only conceive a cub for about 24 to 72 hours out of the entire year so timing is everything. To complicate matters, pandas are solitary bears and also very territorial so they only really mingle with each other about once a year when it’s baby making season. And even then, the stars and anatomy have to align to make a cub.

AJA DRAIN: The National Zoo had trouble for decades. It took the first pair of pandas, the ones that Pat Nixon welcomed around 50 years ago, 11 years just to mate. The female, Ling-Ling, experienced multiple pseudo pregnancies. It’s exactly what it sounds like, when a panda’s hormones imitate a pregnancy without there actually being one and the scientists don’t know if she’s actually pregnant until a baby is or isn’t born, a frustrating fake out for researchers. Plus newborn panda cubs are incredibly tiny and helpless. They come out pink and wrinkly and are smaller than a potato. Ultimately, that first panda couple had five babies together over 20 years but none of them survived due to pneumonia, stillbirth, lack of oxygen, or other infections. But after that panda couple died in the ’90s, the National Zoo needed to succeed with the next couple Mei Xiang and Tian Tian who arrived in 2000. Dr. Pierre Comizzoli is a reproductive scientist at the National Zoo and has been working with pandas for more than 20 years.

PIERRE COMIZZOLI: The problem is that when you have only one male and one female, well, if they don’t really get along together, if there is no chemistry during the breeding season, well, they have no other choices.

AJA DRAIN: Desperate for the pandas to mate naturally, scientists all over the world had to get creative. A sanctuary in China reportedly tried giving pandas human Viagra to stimulate– you know how Viagra works. Another time the National Zoo got their male panda to start working out to strengthen his legs and train the female to lie down in the optimal breeding position. Once, a zoo in Germany even tried playing a panda adult film to show them how it’s done.

PIERRE COMIZZOLI: I mean, I’m not sure that they have a very good eyesight so watching something on the screen, I’m not really sure that they could really understand or whatever so I think it’s not a really scientific approach.

AJA DRAIN: Plus, putting two pandas who do not want anything to do with each other is risky.

PIERRE COMIZZOLI: We are talking about very large animals, very big teeth. And they can really hurt each other if something goes wrong, if they are not really ready to get together or if they get frustrated. And so that’s the reason we had to proceed to artificial insemination.

RASHA ARIDI: Over the course of 20 years, Mei Xiang gave birth to seven cubs, all conceived through artificial insemination, which China has been using since the ’70s. Four of those cubs survived. Between developments like artificial insemination and cryopreservation, basically the freezing of semen, scientists got better at getting mama bears pregnant.

Plus with time and research, scientists and zoo staff became better panda caretakers so more and more pandas were being born and surviving. And even though those cubs were born at the National Zoo, their births were a worldwide collaborative effort. Like Pierre was constantly learning from his colleagues in China. And they even came to visit the National Zoo’s pandas to help out.

PIERRE COMIZZOLI: And that was to me extremely exciting because I could talk to people who had managed tens or hundreds of pandas in their career compared to me that was my relatively small experience in giant panda.

RASHA ARIDI: Pierre also worked with zoos across the US, in Europe, and other parts of Asia.

PIERRE COMIZZOLI: Everybody was sharing their information during the breeding season about, OK, what should we do? What’s the best way to make sure that natural breeding is going to work or when is the best timing for artificial insemination?

RASHA ARIDI: This is Science Friday. I’m Rasha Aridi.

AJA DRAIN: And I’m Aja Drain.

RASHA ARIDI: We’re looking back at the history and science of panda conservation. During the 2000s, scientists were finally getting the hang of captive breeding. In the earlier days, scientists actually had to capture wild pandas and bring them into breeding centers so they could make more babies. But with so many more cubs being born in captivity, scientists didn’t need to wrangle the wild ones anymore. In fact, they could start releasing the ones born in captivity.

PIERRE COMIZZOLI: This is fantastic. And we were able to do that really with the help of assisted reproduction, cryopreservation of semen, and, of course, a very tight plan for the genetic management of those animals.

AJA DRAIN: And Pierre wasn’t just going for quantity.

PIERRE COMIZZOLI: But it’s also the quality, the genetic quality to make sure that whenever they’re going to be reintroduced, they have really all the genes that they need to survive and to face really any kind of changes in their environment.

RASHA ARIDI: Over all these years, the National Zoo managed to raise four panda cubs so that’s four fresh sets of genes in the genetic panda pool. I spoke with Michael Brown-Palsgrove, curator of Asia Trail and Giant Pandas at the National Zoo.

MICHAEL BROWN-PALSGROVE: For a female to give birth to four cubs in the wild might be extraordinary. Tai Shan, our first male cub, has actually fathered cubs. And Bao Bao, our female, has actually already given birth to three additional cubs. So it’s not just four. It’s the future generations we’re contributing as well.

RASHA ARIDI: With decades of panda research happening right here in DC, it feels a little off that the pandas aren’t actually here anymore. But the zoo researchers say that should be celebrated. Here’s Dr. Pierre Comizzoli again, the reproductive scientist.

PIERRE COMIZZOLI: It’s important for those animals to go back to China and to contribute to the sustainability of the population. We have to accept that. And I think it’s a good message also for the general public to understand that those animals, they do not belong to you. They belong to China and they belong to the bamboo forest.

RASHA ARIDI: As for the zoo’s three former pandas, they’re settling into their new homes in China just fine, according to the curator Michael.

MICHAEL BROWN-PALSGROVE: For Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, they’re really just going to have a great life in sort of a retirement community. Eventually Xiao Qi Ji will father cubs as well.

RASHA ARIDI: So captive breeding became a smashing success. But pandas in the wild also needed help. Dr. Mel Songer is a conservation biologist for the National Zoo. And she says that improving the pandas’ habitat is still the number one most important thing because individual panda populations can be really small and isolated.

MEL SONGER: That’s why increasing connectivity and increasing the amount of habitat that’s there– so if you think about you’ve got your 20 pandas in your small area and they’re not matching well, that’s why increasing connectivity and increasing the amount of habitat that’s there is really important.

AJA DRAIN: This exchange between scientists at the National Zoo and in China hasn’t ended. It just looks a little different now since the pandas are gone.

RASHA ARIDI: And it isn’t just the pandas that are being repatriated. Pandas in the Edinburgh Zoo returned in early December and the Adelaide Zoo in Australia is expected to turn theirs sometime in 2024. The departures might seem sudden but they’ve been in the works for years. Here’s Michael Brown-Palsgrove again, the curator at the National Zoo.

MICHAEL BROWN-PALSGROVE: These were agreements that had been long standing and were signed and agreed to by both parties, both China and Smithsonian. That has always been pretty transparent that they would be returning.

RASHA ARIDI: Maybe we should just be better at reading the fine print then.

MICHAEL BROWN-PALSGROVE: Yes. I would agree. Right. The fine print has been out there. And I understand that people have gotten to know these pandas very well but recognize that this is all part of a greater mission to save giant pandas.

AJA DRAIN: In the late ’70s, there were about a thousand pandas left in the wild and now almost double, plus several hundred in captivity. And in 2021, China bumped the pandas up from an endangered species to a vulnerable one. That’s a massive win, especially because while pandas were pulled back from the brink, other species vanished. According to one report, global wildlife populations have tanked nearly 70% in the last 50 or so years.

RASHA ARIDI: And it’s kind of weird to think about how pandas became the poster child of endangered species conservation like by the World Wildlife Fund when thousands of other species could have also used a lifeline. It begs the question was all this time, money, brainpower worth it.

I’ll admit I started reporting this story as a panda hater.

AJA DRAIN: Are you serious?

RASHA ARIDI: Yes. I’m sorry. OK. I get it. I get it. They’re cute. But it’s not like they’re doing all that much for the forest. OK. They’re not like bats that feast upon thousands and thousands of insects a night or elephants that engineer entire ecosystems. Pandas are just kind of there, falling out of trees, not making babies, eating endless bamboo which, by the way, is very inefficient because they’re carnivores. Why are we doing all this to save them? I took my panda-sized frustrations to Dr. Binbin Li, a conservation scientist at Duke Kunshan University in China. Binbin, am I wrong?

BINBIN LI: Yes. Yeah. The short answer is yes. Like pandas, yes, they do attract a lot of attention, tremendous like money. And you cannot stop the love. But most importantly, the attention and also the funding goes into pandas. They actually go into their habitat conservation. And this is the most important part. And if we already have pandas there, and doing the work, and calling for attention, and also money for conservation, why not? And why we should hate pandas? Actually, we should celebrate them.

RASHA ARIDI: And that love and international support led to real change.

BINBIN LI: If you think about how pandas become popular, It’s not because China makes it popular. It’s because people outside China makes pandas become popular and then China began to understand, oh, actually, this species is very important.

RASHA ARIDI: In the early years of the Communist state, China was in poverty and turmoil. Originally, Mao and his government saw science as a way to strengthen China’s position in the world.

AJA DRAIN: Pandas became a catalyst for scientific advancement in China. And one major change came in the form of nature reserves. China set aside its first ever reserve for general ecology research back in the ’50s. And in the ’60s, right around the time China was gearing up to gift pandas, it established a second natural reserve for pandas. China ended up establishing 67 nature reserves in the years since. They protected more than half of the pandas’ entire habitat.

RASHA ARIDI: Pandas are what scientists call umbrella species, meaning conserving them also protects other critters that fall under their umbrella like–

BINBIN LI: Leopard cats, snow leopards, also muntjacs, blue-eared pheasants.

RASHA ARIDI: For example, in the past, the forest musk deer’s population tanked mostly due to habitat destruction and also hunting since they were once sought after for their musk, which is a fragrant secretion used in perfumes. But panda protections help them. And in some areas, there are now too many deer.

AJA DRAIN: Some scientists argue that not everyone wins with this trickle down pandanomics approach. A study from a few years ago found that panda conservation fails to protect other large carnivores like snow leopards, and wolves, and the dao, which kind of looks like if a Shiba Inu had a baby with a red fox. Their decline was driven by similar factors to pandas– poaching, logging, and human encroachment.

Also, pandas just don’t move around all that much. Those other more active carnivores need almost 20 times more space to survive. So the hyper focus on pandas didn’t directly take away space from other carnivores. It just wasn’t enough. So what works for pandas won’t work for every critter. And for pandas to really work as an umbrella species, that umbrella has to get wider.

RASHA ARIDI: Enter the panda park. China quite literally patch things up by connecting all 67 panda reserves into the Giant Panda National Park, which was announced in 2021. How exciting is that for conservation scientists?

BINBIN LI: It’s a mixed feeling. It will be a super great idea. And it’s super big. And it gave the chance to restore the connectivity and solve the habitat fragmentation issues within the area because it’s super big. And why it’s a mixed feeling, there are about 120,000 residents within the National Park. So thinking about how to balance the livelihoods of the local communities, 120,000 residents with about 1,500 pandas, so how to balance the lives for the people and for wildlife.

AJA DRAIN: So there’s still a lot of work to do. But the hope is that the park will connect those scattered panda populations and protect more than just pandas like the 8,000 plant and animal species that live in the park. And it’s huge. If it was in the US, it’d be the third largest national park.

RASHA ARIDI: So panda conservation isn’t really just about the panda. It’s also about conserving the forests they live in, protecting other at-risk species that live there, and building up resilience in the face of climate change, basically leveraging the pandas’ fame and fortune for the greater good of the ecosystem. This strategy of leveraging one token species to protect a wider ecosystem is one of the most common approaches in conservation. I spoke with Dr. Jack Liu about this. He’s a sustainability scientist at Michigan State University. He’s been studying pandas for decades.

JACK LIU: If you have $1 million, for example, you spend $1 million on one species, you save one species. If you spend $1 on each species, you may not be able even to save one species. So that’s my thinking about this approach. Right. I think there are shortcoming, of course. If you don’t [? t ?] the panda, what do you spend money on?

RASHA ARIDI: OK. So to Jack’s point, why not pandas? And spreading money too thin probably won’t do all that much good anyways. If we’re going to dump a ton of time, energy, money into a species, it should be one that can do the most good.

JACK LIU: Yes. I think that’s the lesson. If you consider those are the cascading impact from panda research and conservation, I think it’s really worthwhile to do.

RASHA ARIDI: Pierre, the reproductive scientist at the National Zoo, agrees. We need to have those iconic species and charismatic species because they are drivers of conservation. All the things that we developed for giant pandas are very useful to other species. The tools that we developed, for example, to monitor the hormones in the urine of the female giant panda, well, we could do the same for frogs.

AJA DRAIN: Research on panda pee can be used for other species. Same goes for cryopreservation, the freezing of semen. And studying the vegetation, climate, or landscape of panda habitat could be useful information for many colleges so we get lots of bang for the pandas’ buck, but how does this play out across conservation?

RASHA ARIDI: Dr. Rich Bergl is the director of animal care, conservation, education, and science at the North Carolina Zoo. And he brings us to our next point, money. So generally speaking, do you find that there is enough money for conservation? Like would you say it is a well funded field?

RICH BERGL: No. Absolutely not. The money is never commensurate with the degree of threat to wildlife and the need.

RASHA ARIDI: He says that it’s easier to sell the public and funders on these big, flashy, exciting animals like pandas, gorillas, tigers, elephants, you know, the crowd favorites. Are there any problems with that kind of like flagship or umbrella species approach?

RICH BERGL: Sure. I mean you can, if you do focus overly on the individual species rather than the habitat in which they occur, then you could, in theory, put in place programs or use approaches that would just preserve that thing while the system in which it occurs is allowed to get further degraded but that’s relatively unusual.

RASHA ARIDI: Rich says that if conservationists are doing a good job, they’re sharing the wealth.

RICH BERGL: The reality is that there are some things that people are more willing to support. If you’re talking about some slimy salamander like the hellbender in the mountains of North Carolina, it’s a lot harder to get people excited about that even if they are in danger of extinction or in trouble in the wild.

RASHA ARIDI: Right. Like I’ve never seen a hellbender plushy anywhere.

RICH BERGL: Although we actually have those at the zoo but we even have a life size hellbender costume that people wear to events. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

RASHA ARIDI: So money is limited to say the least. As part of the National Zoo’s latest panda contract with China, it paid the China Wildlife Conservation Association, which is a nonprofit, half a million dollars every year. And that money went exclusively to wild panda conservation. In fact, Dr. Binbin Li, the scientist in China, says the money from the National Zoo actually paid for the fieldwork for her first panda project.

A lot of people have brought this up, too. It sounds kind of off-putting, like we’re sending a good chunk of change away to China when we have our own critters to worry about here. What do you say in response?

RICH BERGL: Conservation shouldn’t be a competition between what’s the most important thing to conserve. And so conserving giant pandas I think is important. Equally conserving the American red wolf in the United States is important.

RASHA ARIDI: Right. And in the biodiversity crisis that we’re in right now, it seems like a win is a win is a win.

RICH BERGL: Sure. Yeah. Yeah. No. Absolutely. And conservation wins are not necessarily easy to come by. The reality is that I cannot think of a single conservation project or species conservation initiative anywhere in the world that is overfunded.

AJA DRAIN: Rich says that when it comes to funding, a good piece of it comes from individuals or foundations with their own interests, which is exactly where that $500,000 grant for the China Wildlife Conservation Association came from. The National Zoo has two main revenue streams, Congress and trusts.

The money sent to China is trust money so it’s not like you as a taxpayer are funding that. In fact, a good chunk of the panda program’s funding comes from one private donor. He’s given the zoo more than $13 million for pandas. Needless to say he’s a fan. So the argument that spending money on pandas takes it away from other animals just isn’t the case here.

At the end of the day, the panda represents a conservation win, one we so desperately need. Scientists leveraged the pandas’ fame, and fortune, and notoriety to save more than just these bears. It’s to protect an entire ecosystem, to pioneer new scientific techniques, to share knowledge from species to species and across borders. And although this whole panda-shaped movement is based in politics, conservationists in China and across the world want one thing.

MICHAEL BROWN-PALSGROVE: They have the same priorities and objectives as we do, which is to save a species. And so we learned a lot with these pandas here. We shared that knowledge. So really, for me, it’s more about the conservation win than it is about the politics.

PIERRE COMIZZOLI: And of course, when you are dealing with other human beings, you deal with diplomacy. You deal with politics. You deal with different cultures. But that’s, to me, one of the other exciting parts of working in conservation is to meet people from other cultures or other backgrounds.

RASHA ARIDI: Right after Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Biden in November, he announced that China is considering sending pandas to California to, quote, “deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples.” Here’s Dr. Chee Meng Tan again, the policy researcher.

CHEE MENG TAN: When it comes to big things like that, highly symbolic things of this sort, nothing is coincidence. When the pandas were at the Smithsonian, this was under Mao’s time, so it’s very likely I think because Xi Jinping is trying to rebuild China in many ways under his legacy.

RASHA ARIDI: So pandas, until next time. For Science Friday, I’m Rasha Aridi.

AJA DRAIN: And I’m Aja Drain.

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