Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today joined Chinese officials at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park to announce that two giant pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, will remain at the zoo under a new agreement to support breeding, research and conservation efforts by the two countries.
"The loan of giant pandas to the Smithsonian's National Zoo has long symbolized the close partnership the United States has with China as we work together to conserve and recover one of the world's most endangered species in the wild," Salazar said. "I am proud that this agreement not only ensures that visitors to the zoo will continue to be able to visit and learn about these beautiful animals, but also provides a strong platform for improving the conservation of wild pandas and their habitat in China. The agreement is a reminder that a love for our planet's land and wildlife is shared across boundaries and brings people together around the world."
The agreement, signed today by Dennis Kelly, Director of the National Zoo and Secretary General Zang Chunlin of the China Wildlife Conservation Association, extends the Zoo's giant panda program for five more years.
The first two years of the agreement include a cooperative study involving reproductive experts from the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong and the Smithsonian's Conservation Biology Institute to oversee the breeding of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian.
If after two years, either panda is found unsuitable for breeding, the two institutions will enter into discussions about the possibility of exchanging the pandas with another pair to support China's conservation efforts.
"We are happy to announce that for now, we will keep our beloved Mei Xiang and Tian Tian at the Smithsonian's National Zoo," Kelly said. "With only about 1,600 individuals now found in the wild, giant pandas are among the most endangered animals on earth so it is a great privilege and responsibility to have two animals in our care."
Salazar commended the work of a delegation from the department's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that met with Chinese officials in Beijing late last year to strengthen ties on panda conservation and improve coordination in the overall effort to save the species and its rapidly declining habitat.
Those successful discussions led to consensus on a new framework for working with China on its priorities for giant panda conservation. Under the new framework, the government of China will fund specific projects to support wild panda conservation based on a mutually agreed list of activities.
During the discussions in Beijing, the Chinese expressed their intent to initiate a new 10-year survey and census, and build on their recent efforts to begin panda reintroductions into the wild.
These efforts are funded, in part, through cooperative agreements with the National Zoo and other U.S. zoos authorized by the Fish and Wildlife Service's Giant Panda Policy under the Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
The ongoing funding effort included the transfer of approximately $10 million from U.S. zoos with giant pandas, which China will use to support its panda conservation efforts.
"We are committed to supporting China's efforts to conserve wild pandas and their habitats, as well as China's intent to shift captive-breeding efforts toward the reintroduction of giant pandas into the wild," said Secretary Salazar.
Currently, four zoos in the United States host giant pandas under exchange agreements with the Chinese government: Zoo Atlanta, Memphis Zoo, the San Diego Zoo, and the National Zoo--more than any country outside China.
Also in attendance at the signing ceremony was Ambassador Chen Naiqing, wife of Chinese Ambassador ZhangYan and Mary Kaye Huntsman, wife of U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman Jr.
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian have lived at the Smithsonian's National Zoo since Dec 6, 2000. Both pandas were born at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong and had parents that were wild born. Mei Xiang, which means "beautiful fragrance," will turn 13 on July 22 and Tian Tian, meaning "more and more," will turn 14 on Aug. 27.
The current pair has not produced a cub since 2005, when Tai Shan, a male, was born. Tai Shan was sent to China in February, 2010, per the terms of the former agreement. Since his birth, efforts from attempted natural breeding and artificial inseminations have not resulted in a viable cub. If the zoo successfully produces a cub, the offspring will be allowed to stay at the zoo until the age of four. Previously, cubs were to return to China before age two. Both parents and any offspring remain under the ownership of China.