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China to send 2 giant pandas to San Diego Zoo this year

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China is set to send two giant pandas to the San Diego Zoo, marking the East Asian nation’s first panda loans to the U.S. in two decades.

About the new loans: San Diego Zoo officials anticipate the arrival of two pandas, a male and a female, by the end of summer, marking the zoo's renewed panda program about five years after the last pandas were returned to China in 2019. The selection process for the pandas includes considering a female descendent of former residents Bai Yun and Gao Gao.

"We're very excited and hopeful," Megan Owen of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and vice president of Wildlife Conservation Science told the Associated Press. "They've expressed a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to re-initiate panda cooperation starting with the San Diego Zoo."

Following up on a promise: The announcement comes after Chinese leader Xi Jinping expressed the possibility of sending more pandas to the U.S. as a symbol of friendship during his meeting with President Joe Biden for the 30th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) global trade summit in San Francisco in November last year.

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This decision also follows the return of pandas from the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., to China last year, ending more than 50 years of a successful giant panda conservation program. The beloved pandas initially came to the zoo in 2000 as part of a research and breeding program.

“We look forward to further expanding the results of scientific research on the protection of endangered species such as the giant panda through the new round of international cooperation, promoting people-to-people connectivity and enhancing civilian friendship with relevant countries,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a news briefing in Beijing on Thursday.

Panda diplomacy: China loans pandas to more than 20 countries through its "panda diplomacy" program, with Xi's recent statements seen as an effort to improve U.S.-China relations. Pandas first arrived in the U.S. in 1972, a few months after President Richard Nixon’s visit to China. The panda loan program has since been used for diplomatic and scientific exchange over the years.

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According to the China Wildlife Conservation Association, guaranteeing the well-being and safety of giant pandas residing overseas is the foremost foundation for international cooperation, regarding the upcoming panda loan to the San Diego Zoo. China recognizes the bear species as significant for political and diplomatic purposes, particularly in locations where it aims to enhance influence or foster closer relations.

Conservation efforts: Other than the San Diego Zoo in California, discussions are also ongoing for potential new panda cooperation with the National Zoo in Washington and the Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna, Austria.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, less than 2,000 giant pandas remain in the wild. The conservation efforts, both in the wild and in captivity, have contributed to saving the giant panda species from extinction, increasing its population to over 1,800 in the wild and captivity.

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