Now, zoo officials can stop worrying about fundraising for the pandas and turn to what they consider a far more important task: The often frustrating effort to produce panda cubs. The zoo has said that 2012 is probably the last year it will try to achieve a pregnancy with its current pair of giant pandas.
Officials announced the donation during a news conference at the zoo, attended by, among others, Rubenstein; the Chinese ambassador to the United States, Zhang Yesui; the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Wayne Clough; and National Zoo Director Dennis W. Kelly.
Kelly described the gift as “an extraordinary act of generosity.”
“Around the world David is well known as an astute businessman, a great community leader, and a great, generous donor,” Kelly said Monday. “Today, David, we’re going to add a new title to your resume: panda enthusiast.”
Clough announced that in honor of the gift the zoo’s Giant Panda habitat was being named the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat.
Rubenstein is a co-founder and managing director of the Carlyle Group, a global asset-management firm. He is also a member of the board of regents at the Smithsonian, which operates the zoo, and chairman of Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The Carlyle Group has $148 billion in assets under management, according to its Web site.
Rubenstein emphasized that this is a personal gift. “It’s my family’s money,” he said. “It’s something that my family wanted to do for Washington.”
This year, the zoo reached a new lease agreement with China that extends the stay of its two popular giant pandas — Mei Xiang, 13, a female, and Tian Tian, 14, a male — for five years. The agreement replaced a 10-year lease that expired late last year. The new agreement expires Dec. 6, 2015.
Giant pandas are native to China, and the Chinese own and lease all giant pandas held at U.S. zoos.
Among other things, the new agreement lowered the annual cost of leasing the pandas from $1 million to about $500,000 — still a substantial sum that the zoo was struggling to raise in difficult economic times.
Rubenstein’s gift — in five $900,000 annual increments — will cover that cost and the cost of continuing giant panda research in the United States and abroad.
In a telephone interview Sunday, Rubenstein said that at a recent meeting of the Smithsonian regents, he was surprised to hear Kelly report that the zoo was having trouble raising money to help pay for the pandas.