National Zoo will hold on to giant pandas - and its dreams of a cub - for 5 more years

The National Zoo has reached a new agreement with China that extends the stay of its two giant pandas for five more years, reviving hope that Washington might get to see another panda cub.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 12:27 AM

The National Zoo has reached a new agreement with China that extends the stay of its two giant pandas for five more years, continuing the romance with the iconic, rotund animals that have become symbols of Washington and objects of its intense affection.

That's five more winters of black and white bears rolling in the snow. Five more summers of them munching on fruit on warm afternoons. And five more years of waiting and hoping that the pandas might produce just one more giant panda cub.

Government and zoo officials said Wednesday that they were delighted, although the agreement did not fulfill all the zoo's hopes. They were trying to get one or even two new pandas. In 10 years, the zoo's giant pandas - Tian Tian, the 13-year-old male, and 12-year-old Mei Xiang - have produced just one cub.

Dennis W. Kelly, the zoo's director, has made it clear that he would like to replace one or both of the giant pandas to enhance the likelihood of having more cubs at the zoo.

"I think this is a wonderful new agreement for both pandas and the National Zoo," he said. "We have agreed in writing to put a very heavy emphasis on why this particular pair has not produced a cub in five years."

A high-level signing ceremony to formally announce the agreement was scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday at the zoo, with Kelly, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Zang Chunlin, secretary general of the China Wildlife Conservation Association, in attendance.

Cost reduced

The agreement - a bit of panda diplomacy that was months in the making - replaces a 10-year lease that expired Dec. 6.

Among other things, it lowers the annual cost of leasing the pandas from $1 million to about $500,000. The money is to go toward panda conservation programs in China.

It calls for an intensive, China-U.S. study of the pandas this year and next year to try to determine why they have produced only one cub.

And it leaves the door open to the possibility of replacement pandas if the study concludes that one or both animals are unsuitable for breeding, officials said.

Zoos in Atlanta and San Diego have had more success breeding pandas, producing more than six cubs in recent years.

The new deal coincides with the U.S. state visit of China's president, Hu Jintao.

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