For decades, they were cuddly emblems of global co-operation. Now, they’re a bamboo-munching testament to a more turbulent world.
Beloved giant pandas that came to define the zoo in the U.S. capital are gone. All three remaining ones were carted off Wednesday to the airport for a long flight to China.
Thus ended 51 years of pandas at Washington’s Smithsonian National Zoo, where their enclave was the geographic centre, the top draw and the heart of the zoo.
Some of the final visitors to see its pandas choked back tears as they bid farewell to creatures they’d come to know by name.
“It’s sad,” said Dina Biblin, as she started to weep, during a visit Tuesday afternoon.
Her decades of living in this area coincided with the presence of pandas. Now retired, Biblin lives in Florida but stops to see them when she’s in town.
She’s part of a community of panda-watchers who have become friends here; some travel on vacation together to a world-famous panda sanctuary in China, the animals’ future home.
Retiree Helen Gonzalez has observed pandas so closely she can tell by the way one eats whether it’s a male, female or child. The ones scarfing down the bamboo shoots fastest are adult males.
She comes here when she’s feeling blue, and they bring a peace and joy to her day: “The pandas have helped me and many others.”
But this isn’t entirely a story about animals.
A 51-year emblem of China-U.S. relations
It’s a story about humans too — specifically about the now-deteriorating relationship between humans in the two most powerful nations on Earth.
Pandas have served as a bookend to the China-U.S. relationship, having been part of it from the moment the U.S. even had a relationship with the People’s Republic of China.
The first pandas arrived at this zoo in 1972, just months before Communist China established its first diplomatic presence in Washington.
They were a direct result of Richard Nixon’s history-making trip to China: the U.S. gave two musk oxen as a gift, China reciprocated with pandas.
News of the gift was broken to reporters by Pat Nixon, the first lady, as they toured a Chinese hotel kitchen; an ensuing report in the New York Times informed readers that pandas were bear-like animals with black‐circled eyes.
American zoos competed for them.
The countries co-operated on a historic conservation effort; it helped pull the puffy bear back from the brink of extinction, shifting it from the endangered-species list to the vulnerable list.
‘This is a hard morning’
Brandie Smith said she was trying to focus on the joy of that achievement Wednesday. Otherwise, the head of the zoo’s conservation effort had been worrying for days that she’d be a mess when they left, a puddle of tears.
“Everyone keeps asking me how I feel. This is a hard morning,” said Smith, director of the zoo’s conservation and biology institute.
“It’s been a hard week.”
Great-power relations have curdled.
Pandas are swiftly disappearing from U.S. zoos and will soon be gone entirely. Leases are expiring in the U.S. without being renewed, and the final U.S.-based pandas set to leave Atlanta early next year.
One longtime China-watcher said it’s no accident this is happening now.
Dennis Wilder, a former official at the CIA and the White House, and now a professor at Georgetown University in D.C., is also a parent of an adult son.
Like virtually every parent in Washington, he holds memories of admiring these animals with his child.
So why are these pandas all being repatriated now?
“Pique at the United States,” Wilder replied.
“I call this punitive panda diplomacy rather than panda diplomacy, which was positive. I think this is Chinese overreaction to the situation between the United States and China.”
WATCH | Pat Nixon welcomes pandas to the U.S. National Zoo:
Amid growing tensions, Xi and Biden to meet
The countries have a lengthy and growing list of gripes.
For the U.S., it’s theft of intellectual property; espionage; fentanyl shipments; rights abuses at home and repression abroad; and increasing belligerence against Taiwan.
For China, the U.S. is a hypocrite when it talks about international norms. It cites U.S. sabotage of the World Trade Organization, the U.S. using its dollar as a weapon, and the U.S. cutting off exports of semiconductor chips to China.
Both countries increasingly express fear they’re stumbling on a path toward war.
High-level meetings were cancelled earlier this year amid the spy balloon affair. But the countries are renewing efforts at diplomacy.
U.S. President Joe Biden will meet his counterpart Xi Jinping next week at the Asia-Pacific summit in San Francisco.
Don’t expect miracles, Wilder said. Irritants won’t be solved soon; they are serious and complex. The troubling undercurrent, he says, is the countries don’t trust each other.
What he’s hoping for at that meeting is stabilization, a calming of the waters, before next year. It could be a rough 2024, with election-campaign rhetoric in the U.S. and in Taiwan.
A win at that summit, Wilder said, would be the leaders stabilizing conditions for coexistence: maybe China could offer more help in controlling exports of fentanyl-making chemicals, he said, and the U.S. could provide more clarity on its restrictions in technological trade.
“Neither side is looking for dramatic improvement in the relationship,” Wilder said. “What they want to do is put a floor under it [and keep things from getting worse].”
Back at the zoo, there’s now a gigantic empty space where the pandas used to live. It’s unclear what will fill it and whether pandas might make a comeback here.
Visitors keep hoping for the best, for the planet as well as the pandas.
“Really we’re one small world and it seems to be smaller every day,” Gonzalez said. “Hopefully we’ll try to begin to do better.”
Families brought children for one final glimpse.
The future is uncertain
“We’re really lucky,” said 11-year-old Zayna Ansari, one of the last kids to see them here. “They’re probably not going to be here for, like, another 20 years or something.”
Others were too late; the zoo never publicly announced the exact departure date, and some locals were surprised by the earlier-than-expected move Wednesday.
And so a mother, father, and child panda were moved in crates onto a forklift, onto trucks, and to the airport for a 19-hour flight. At the airport, journalists asked the pilot if he’d ever flown pandas before; he had not.
One departing panda was born in the U.S.
Xiao Qi Ji was among a number born on American soil, conceived through artificial insemination; the three-year-old left with his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian.
A Chinese official participated in the departure ceremony; she promised continued collaboration on global conservation efforts.
She did not comment on the prospect of future panda exchanges.
“As a diplomat in Washington, I say to [these animals], ‘Goodbye and bon voyage’,” said Xu Xueyuan, an official at the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
“As a Chinese government official, I say to them, ‘Welcome back.'”