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The Panda Trade: China's Age-Old Panda Diplomacy

China retains ownership of all the giant pandas around the world. Every Panda outside China has been loaned by the country and the practice is termed

'panda diplomacy'.

giant panda eating bamboo in forest illustration


As per WWF's 2014 estimates, pandas are on the road to recovery with 1,864 pandas living in the wild as compared to 1,114 pandas back in the 1980s. It is an achievement to celebrate but pandas still remain scattered and vulnerable.


The process started back in 685 AD when Chinese Empress Wu Zetian gifted a pair of pandas to the Japnese Emperor Tenmu. The idea was raised again in the 1950s when the Chinese government gifted pandas to nations to create allies.


In February 1972, Chairman Mao made US president Nixon a promise on his visit to China to send two giant pandas to the States, as a token of thanks. When the pandas finally arrived in April of 1972, First Lady Pat Nixon welcomed them with an official ceremony at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. It is anticipated that over one million people came to view the pandas during their first year in the United States, with over 20,000 individuals coming on the first day they were on exhibit.

The pandas were an instant hit, and China's gift was heralded as a huge diplomatic achievement that demonstrated Beijing's seriousness about forging diplomatic ties with Washington. As a result of its overwhelming success, British Prime Minister Edward Heath begged China to send pandas to the United Kingdom during his 1974 state visit. Just a few weeks later, Chia-Chia and Ching-Ching the pandas made their way to the London Zoo. The pandas that were given to the United Kingdom would subsequently serve as the basis for the WWF's emblem.


At present, China loans pandas to certain countries, and the country's zoo pays an annual fee reported to be between $500,000 to $1 million each to keep the pandas under a ten-year loan agreement. From 1941 to 1984, China gifted pandas to other countries. After a change in policy in 1984, pandas were leased instead of gifted.


For any off-springs which are born during the loan period, zoos reportedly pay an extra one-time fee of $400,000 for each panda cub. Most panda cubs are sent to China within a few years, although the age at which that happens varies by contract.


Panda plays a central role in China's geopolitics. The pandas have benefited from quality medical care and breeding and research efforts at facilities around the world.

Zoos have, in turn, benefited from the increased foot traffic and revenue that pandas generate, helping to offset the cost of acquiring and keeping the animals.

Expenses and upkeep

The cost of maintaining pandas is high. In addition to the "rent" that must be paid to China, stocking up on bamboo is prohibitively expensive. Only fresh bamboo, around 40 kilogrammes per day, is in a panda's diet. The Edinburgh Zoo's annual budget for feeding its two pandas was reported to be $107,000 in 2011. The zoo put out a call for bamboo contributions, and local gardeners responded by planting the grass.

As the price of commodities rose during the COVID-19 epidemic, the availability of bamboo became an additional factor. Due to the difficulty of getting an appropriate supply of new bamboo, the Calgary Zoo decided to send their panda parents back to China to reunite with their offspring earlier than planned.

In 2019, the Copenhagen Zoo erected a panda habitat for two pandas they are leasing from China for 15 years at a cost of $1 million per year. The $24 million price tag was covered by private donations.


Chuang Chuang and Lin Hui, two pandas, were donated to the Chiang Mai Zoo by the Chinese government in 2003. After being placed on a regimen for his weight in 2007, Chuang Chuang passed away in September of 2019 from heart failure. People started holding China's panda diplomacy responsible, saying that relocating the creatures from their native environment to other countries was bad for their health and would only accelerate the species' collapse.


After WWF's 2014 estimates, giant pandas are no longer classified as 'endangered'. They've been downgraded to 'vulnerable' on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species.

It shows that conversation efforts are working and provide hope for the world's other threatened wildlife.

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