Pandas in the United States: A Timeline

A look at how the modern fervor for the bears got started.

By: Colin Daileda, Nicholas Hunt

When President Nixon got back from his famous trip to China in 1972, the American people were glad that relations with China seemed better, but they were much more excited about what the President brought back with him: two big black and white fur balls that started the modern panda craze.

Eight thousand people, including First Lady Pat Nixon, stood in the rain for half an hour just to get a glimpse of the first pandas to be in the United States in nearly two decades. Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing attracted millions of fans over the years, but none of their five cubs survived more than a few days.

Today, however, is a happier time, as another healthy panda was born at the National Zoo—the second of the year in the US, and the latest in a line of successful US births. Although China now only loans pandas to zoos around the world (usually for $1 million per year, plus an additional $500,000 per cub), the National Zoo, the San Diego Zoo, Memphis Zoo, and Zoo Atlanta all have multiple pandas and are contributing to a resurgent world population of the beloved bamboo eaters.

See below for a brief history of pandas around the world.

7th century CE: Empress Wu Zetian gives a pair of pandas to Japan’s emperor in the first recorded incident of “panda diplomacy.”

1936: Fashionista and socialite Ruth Harkness travels to China and brings the first live panda back to the West.

1946: China stops allowing foreign exploitation of pandas.

1957: The modern age of panda diplomacy begins when China gifts the Soviet Union Ping Ping the panda.

1972: America snags a pair of bears for the National Zoo during Nixon’s historic trip to China. The First Lady welcomes Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing with an official ceremony, and the duo live happily at the zoo for more than 20 years. The US gives China a pair of musk oxen in return.

1974: The London Zoo gets a pair after Prime Minister Edward Heath’s diplomatic trip to China.

1984: China ceases to gift pandas to other countries and instead begins loaning pandas to foreign zoos in exchange for up to $1 million a year in fees. The Los Angeles Zoo gets the first North American “rent-a-panda” for the 1984 Olympics for $100,000 per month.

1987: More than 2 million people go to see Basi and Yuan Yuan during their 200-day loan to the San Diego Zoo.

1993: The US Fish and Wild Life Service bans the import of pandas over concerns about the loans’ commercialization and short-term nature. The ban is lifted two years later with assurances that no pandas will be taken from the wild and that 80 percent of the zoos’ profits from the pandas go toward conservation programs.

1996: San Diego receives the first pair of pandas capable of breeding since 1972.

1999: San Diego’s Hua Mei is born, the first cub in the Western Hemisphere since 1990, and becomes the first Western-bred panda to survive into adulthood. She was returned to China in 2004 as part of the loan agreement.

2005: The wild panda population is estimated at close to 1,600, up more than 40 percent from the 1980s.

2011: The National Zoo reaches an agreement to extend the stay of its pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, for five years at a cost of $2.5 million.