The National Zoo’s beloved black-and-white bears, which have delighted Washingtonians for generations and created joyous episodes of pandamania and profit, often have been on the world stage.
But next year, the extended 20-year Chinese lease of the two adults — Mei Xiang, a female, and Tian Tian, a male — will be up Dec. 7.
The zoo said it has not started discussions with the Chinese about the lease and could not speculate on an outcome. And the U.S. political landscape by late 2020 is a mystery.
“Our agreements are based on science surrounding the giant pandas,” zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said. “We’ve accomplished a lot over the last 40-plus years. Now both sides have to take a look at what the future science goals should be, and they go from there.”
Chinese and American giant panda experts get on “exceptionally well,” she said.
By prior agreement with the Chinese, all giant panda cubs born in U.S. zoos must be sent to a breeding program in China once they turn 4.
Two of the zoo’s cubs have been shipped to China in recent years, and plans for the transfer of Bei Bei are underway, the zoo said.
The adults are present under different terms from their offspring.
The National Zoo is hopeful that China will not leave Washington pandaless and has said that collaboration with Chinese scientists on giant pandas has been highly beneficial for both counties.
Should giant pandas be caught up in relations between China and the United States, it would not be the first time.
Milestones in the pandas’ tenure in Washington have been celebrated by top officials from both countries.
During World War II, China gave New York’s Bronx Zoo two pandas in gratitude for American war relief.
In February 1972, at a dinner in Beijing, first lady Patricia Nixon told Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai how fond she was of giant pandas, the zoo’s website says.
Eager for improved relations with the United States, the zoo said, Zhou replied: “I’ll give you some.”
The visit by Richard Nixon and his wife had made worldwide headlines. The United States and China had been bitter geopolitical foes for 20 years. And the offer of the pandas was part of a historic thaw in relations.
That April, China gave the United States two young giant pandas, Ling-Ling, a female, and Hsing-Hsing, a male. Both were 18 months old.
They were a gift, not a loan, the zoo notes, and “ever since their arrival, the pandas have symbolized cross-cultural collaboration between the United States and China.”
In return, the United States sent China two musk oxen, Milton and Matilda, from the San Francisco Zoo. Musk oxen are shaggy natives of the Arctic known for their strong odor.
Zoos in or near several cities — San Diego, Chicago, St. Louis and New York — had lobbied to get the Chinese pandas, but Nixon chose Washington.
In March, the president disclosed his choice in a telephone call to the Washington Star’s foreign editor, Crosby Noyes. The Star had lobbied on behalf of the National Zoo. The president then veered off into a discussion about panda sex.
“The problem . . . with pandas is that they don’t know how to mate,” Nixon told Noyes in the taped call. “The only way they learn how is to watch other pandas mate. You see?
“So they’re keeping them there a little while — these are younger ones — to sort of learn, you know, how it’s done,” the president said.
“Now, if they don’t learn it, they’ll get over here, and nothing will happen,” he said. “So I just thought you should just have your best reporter out there to see whether these pandas have learned.”
The pandas arrived that April, to be greeted by Patricia Nixon and delirious throngs.
The president called his wife to see how things went.
“They were just darling,” she told her husband in the recorded call. “Everybody raved about them.”
“Do you pet them?” he asked. “Or they don’t allow that? How does it work?”
They’re behind glass, she replied, adding: “They’re comic little things.”
The bears were a delight for more than two decades, drawing millions of visitors and putting the animal on par with cherry blossoms as a symbol of Washington.
Ling-Ling died in 1992, and Hsing-Hsing died in 1999, leaving the zoo’s giant panda house empty for the first time in 27 years. The pair had several cubs, but none survived.
In 2000, China sent the zoo Mei Xiang and Tian Tian on a 10-year, $10 million lease.
In 2011, an almost five-year agreement was signed, lowering the annual lease price from $1 million to $500,000.
And in 2015, another deal was reached to keep the giant pandas in Washington until next year.
Meanwhile, the zoo has been waiting to find out whether Mei Xiang is pregnant.
The Panda House closed Aug. 7, anticipating that she might be with cub.
Zoo experts said Mei Xiang, 21, started to show changes in her behavior this month that might be a sign that she’s pregnant — or having a false pregnancy, which is relatively common in pandas.
Mei Xiang had false pregnancies last year, and in 2017, 2011, 2010, 2009 — possibly in 2008 — and in 2007 and 2004.
This year, her levels of progesterone were rising, and she remained indoors, both signs of possible pregnancy.
It’s tricky to get a giant panda pregnant. The animals are in estrus for only 24 to 72 hours each year.
Typically when a female giant panda is pregnant, she will spend more time sleeping and less time eating. Pregnant pandas also become more sensitive to noise, which is why officials decided to close the Panda House.
Mei Xiang is licking her paws and cradling toys — two more signs that she could be pregnant. And officials said she has “started building a small nest of shredded bamboo in her den,” which she adds to at night.
In March, Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated using semen from Tian Tian. The panda gestation period usually lasts 90 to 185 days.
Zookeepers have been doing regular ultrasounds on Mei Xiang for the past month. She is on the older side for giving birth, but officials said some giant pandas have given birth when they were older than she is.
Mei Xiang, whose name means “beautiful fragrance,” has birthed three surviving cubs: the males Tai Shan and Bei Bei, and the female Bao Bao.
The animals are listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the zoo said. There are believed to be about 1,800 in the wild and about 500 in captivity worldwide.