How Politics And Diplomacy Shape Panda Conservation

30:00 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 National Zoo

Earlier this year, the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington announced that pandas would be returning to the capitol. This news was met with great fanfare because the zoo’s resident pandas had returned to China last fall, leaving the District panda-less for the first time in more than 50 years.

After the pandas left D.C. in the fall, SciFri producer Rasha Aridi and journalist Aja Drain dug into the juicy political history of panda conservation and how it shaped panda research. In this segment from December 2023, they 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.

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