National Zoo celebrates 50 years of panda conservation

It was 50 years ago this weekend that giant pandas were first brought to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington. The historic program with China has fostered a collaboration between scientists and led to a conservation success story for the once endangered species. Geoff Bennett takes an up close look at these popular and precious animals.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    Today marks 50 years since giant pandas first came to the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington. The historic program with China has fostered a collaboration between scientists and led to a conservation success story for the once endangered species. I recently got an up-close look at these popular and precious animals.

    Panda caretaker Laurie Thompson led us through the bamboo shed.

    So this is, kind of, like, where you store all the bamboo before you…

    Laurie Thompson, Asst. Curator of Giant Pandas, Smithsonian's National Zoo: Yes.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    … give it to them?

  • Laurie Thompson:

    Yes.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Then, around the corner, to a holding area where the pandas wait before being allowed into their outside yards.

  • Laurie Thompson:

    So this is Tian Tian.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Hey, Tian Tian.

    We were helping Thompson set up Tian Tian's panda yard, leaving him an afternoon snack.

  • Laurie Thompson:

    It's a special treat that he gets. Generally, they get something every day.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Thompson picked the perfect spot, dropping off the treat where zoo visitors would get the best view.

    And so this is just like a regular popsicle, or is there something special in here?

  • Laurie Thompson:

    So this is apple juice.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Oh, really?

  • Laurie Thompson:

    Frozen apple juice, yes, mixed with some water.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Thompson has been working with pandas here for 28 years, more than half the time pandas have been at the zoo.

  • Laurie Thompson:

    Tian Tian is my favorite, so…

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Really, why?

  • Laurie Thompson:

    He's just a cool guy. He's laid-back.

    Nothing fazes him. He lets you know when he's hungry, when he wants something. He's very straightforward.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Giant pandas first came to the National Zoo 50 years ago, welcomed by then-first lady Patricia Nixon as part of a goodwill gesture by the Chinese government after her husband's historic state visit to China in early 1972.

  • Former First Lady Patricia Nixon:

    Here at the National Zoo, they will be enjoyed by the millions of people who come from across the country to visit the nation's capital each year. I notice Dr. Ripley is wearing a panda tie, and I have my panda pin, I'll have you know. And I think panda-monium is going to break out right here at the zoo.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And it did. Ling Ling and Tsing Tsing sparked an American love affair with giant pandas and decades of scientific collaboration with China that continues to this day. China loaned the second pair of pandas in 2000. And over the years, they've had four cubs that survived, captivating crowds with their adorable antics.

    Brandie Smith is the director of Smithsonian's National Zoo and was once herself a giant panda curator.

  • Brandie Smith:

    Well, looking at the people and their reactions, because they're so excited and they're so happy just to catch a glimpse of a panda.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Yeah, I can imagine.

  • Brandie Smith:

    Yeah.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    It's quite the draw.

    They are still a rare animal, despite moving off the endangered species list in 2016. Worldwide, their numbers rose from 100 under human care in 1980 to more than 600 in 2020.

  • Brandie Smith:

    To save an endangered species, you have to make more of them. So you really need to understand reproduction. And that was one of the biggest mysteries with giant pandas, because they're only reproductively viable for a few days a year. And so we spent a lot of time trying to understand, study and, kind of, crack the code on giant panda reproduction. Our scientists, our conservationists, are the reason why we're able to successfully produce so many panda cubs.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And their numbers in the wild have grown, too. There are now an estimated 1,864 pandas in China.

  • Mel Songer, Conservation Biologist, Smithsonian’s National Zoo:

    Moving from endangered species to a vulnerable species, I think it's — it's a real conservation success story.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Mel Songer is a conservation biologist who tracks how humans transform landscapes and assesses how that affects endangered species and their habitats.

  • Mel Songer:

    Because of policies in — in China and the government's actions to protect new areas, most of the loss of habitat has been stopped. They've had a ban on logging and they've — they've stopped agriculture going to higher levels where it would come in contact with the pandas.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    The Chinese government has set aside 67 habitat sites for giant pandas, something Songer has worked on with her Chinese colleagues for the past 20 years. But the giant panda isn't out of the woods yet.

  • Mel Songer:

    In terms of the next sort of threat that we see coming is going to be due to climate change. But what happens if climate change causes their habitats to shift — shift to the north, shift up in elevation?

    Will there be potential to move if there are new areas becoming suitable that aren't protected?

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Um-hmm.

  • Mel Songer:

    Where are the opportunities to protect those areas so that they will be able to shift?

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Giant pandas are an umbrella species, which means the 4,000 species that live at China's new Giant Panda National Park also benefit. Songer and her Chinese counterparts catch many of them on camera traps.

    An elaborate camera setup in Washington lets anybody in the world see how the pandas spend their days.

    During the pandemic, millions streamed the panda cam. There was even a new addition. Xiao Qi Ji, or "Little Miracle," was born when much of the world was under lockdown. His mother, Mei Xiang, was artificially inseminated at the age of 22, the oldest giant panda to give birth in the U.S. Twenty-five million page views and counting, the world logged on to watch Xiao Qi Ji grow up.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Why do pandas have such wide appeal?

  • Mel Songer:

    We're actually genetically programmed to love giant pandas.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Really?

  • Mel Songer:

    Yes.

    So we like things that look like babies. You know, it's — we need to care for babies, so…

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Um-hmm.

  • Mel Songer:

    … our species survives. And so the round faces, the big eyes, the cute little noses. And when you look at giant pandas, those are the features that they have.

  • Brandie Smith:

    Get inspired by pandas and you can see what's possible. When you have that inspiration and you get the expertise, you get the backing, the financial and just the political will…

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Um-hmm.

  • Brandie Smith:

    … it just shows you what's possible.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Tian Tian is due to return home to China, as all the pandas eventually do, next year. But the National Zoo hopes to be serving fruit popsicles and bamboo to pandas for many years to come.

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