SAN DIEGO — Chinese President Xi Jinping hinted at a possible return of pandas to the San Diego Zoo and others across country during a visit to California for the Asia-Pacific Economic Corporation conference.
Xi signaled that the pandas could be loaned back as a gesture that China is ready to continue cooperation with the U.S. on panda conservation.
The news had San Diego visitors buzzing with excitement on Thursday.
“They are really cute, and my mom wants to hug one I think,” said Rhett Branan, visiting from North Carolina. He added that he hopes to one day to see one in real life.
When asked by FOX 5 if he ever had, Branan laughed, saying “Yes…In Minecraft.”
The bears have long been the symbol of the U.S.-China friendship since Beijing gifted a pair of pandas to the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington in 1972, ahead of the normalization of bilateral relations. The pandas at the Washington, D.C. zoo were sent back earlier this month.
Later, Beijing loaned the pandas to other U.S. zoos, with proceeds going back to panda conservation programs.
San Diego received their first pair of pandas in 1996 as part of a research loan, with the last bears returning home to China over a decade later in 2019. Now, red pandas live in the giant panda’s old habitat.
“Not long ago, three pandas at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. returned to China. I was told that many American people, especially children, were really reluctant to send them off. I also learned San Diego Zoo and the Californian people very much look forward to welcoming pandas back,” Xi said on Wednesday.
“Pandas have long been envoys of friendship between China and the US. We are ready to continue our cooperation on panda protection with the US,” he continued.
One San Diego visitor, Larry Rubottom, told FOX 5 on Thursday that he once saw them in China.
“Oh it’d be wonderful, they should bring them back,” Larry Rubottom said.
Cheri Rubottom remembered seeing the adorable bears when they were here. “I was here at the zoo with my daughters when they had the babies,” she recalled. “I can’t tell you what year that was, but it was really cool.”
After Xi’s speech, the San Diego Zoo President and CEO Paul Baribault said in a statement that he was excited to hear of the continuing conservation efforts between China and the U.S.
“Conservation starts with people, and our team is committed to working with our partners to welcome the next generation of giant pandas to our zoo, continuing our joint efforts in wildlife conservation, and inspiring millions worldwide to protect the planet we all share,” he continued.
Xi has not made clear when, where, or how many pandas might arrive. The last four remaining pandas in the U.S. are in Atlanta, with their loan agreement ending in 2024.
While it has not been confirmed that the pandas will be indeed coming to the U.S., San Diego Zoo officials told FOX 5 that they have not figured out where the pandas would go or what their plans are for them during their stay.
However, the zoo still has all the bamboo they grew for the original pandas, ready to feed them if they do come back.