Tai Shan is back in China, settling into Villa #1 at the Bifengxia Panda Base in Ya’an in Szechuan province, and now the clock’s ticking for the National Zoo’s other giant pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. Their ten-year “rental” contracts run out in December, meaning that the zoo is gearing up for negotiations.
“Ideally we’ll have made progress by summer, which will determine exactly what happens to our panda program,” says Dennis Kelly, the National Zoo’s new director.
Kelly has experience with pandas: The FedEx plane carrying Tai Shan back to China also carried a panda cub from Atlanta, where Kelly had been head of the zoo.
National Zoo officials hope to secure a five-to-ten-year extension for its current panda pair; it now pays about $1 million a year to China to “rent” the pandas.
China’s a tough negotiator, knowing that the bears are huge draws for US zoos.
Could Washington end up pandaless?
“We’re confident giant pandas will always reside at the National Zoo,” says Don Moore, associate director of animal-care sciences.
Kelly, though, isn’t putting all his cubs in one basket: “I also think everyone will enjoy our new Andean bear cubs when they make their debut later this spring.”
Meanwhile, the zoo is still doing a brisk business in Tai Shan memorabilia—the best-selling item is a small plush bear with his name sewn on the foot.