Want to see a panda up close? Time is running out. Soon, there won’t be any of the bears left in zoos in the United States. They’re being sent back to China. For more than 50 years, the country has loaned pandas to American zoos. It was a token of goodwill. But for now, that period is coming to an end.
“We are going to miss these bears,” Trish Jarvis told TIME for Kids. She’s an animal keeper at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, in Washington, D.C. The zoo is sending its pandas back to China in the coming weeks. “[Pandas] have been part of everyone’s lives for over 50 years.”
The China Wildlife and Conservation Association owns the bears. Its loan agreement with the Smithsonian ends in December. The U.S. and China have had disagreements over issues such as trade and technology. Some observers say that could be why China is taking its pandas back.
The National Zoo has three pandas: Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and Xiao Qi Ji. They will be on a plane to China before the end of the year. Other zoos have already sent theirs back. The pandas at Zoo Atlanta, in Georgia, are to be returned early next year.
Pandas have been a symbol of friendship between the U.S. and China. In 1972, President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon visited China. Pat Nixon mentioned her fondness for giant pandas. The Chinese government offered two of the furry creatures as a gift to the American people. The bears went to live at the National Zoo.
Panda diplomacy has improved the relationship between the countries. It has been good for the bears, too. “They are ambassadors for their species,” Jarvis says. Seeing them at the zoo “gets people excited about saving this bear.”
The giant panda was an endangered species. But its numbers have increased. About 1,800 are living in the wild in China. So the animal’s status was downgraded to vulnerable in 2016. People can continue to support panda conservation, Jarvis says. “Reduce, reuse, recycle. Or you could donate [to wildlife organizations].”
The Smithsonian’s bears will travel to China on a FedEx plane. They’ll be tucked away safely in crates. Zookeepers are preparing the bears for travel. They’re getting them used to the crates and feeding them water sweetened with honey. This helps them adjust to the confinement .
To say farewell, the zoo recently held a celebration called Panda Palooza. There were panda-themed activities and conservation events.
Jarvis says she’ll always value the relationship she has built with the pandas. “Every bear is different,” she says. “They’re like any other animal—your dog or cat. They have a personality.”
Giant panda populations face many challenges, such as habitat loss and low birth rates. Conservationists have worked hard to protect the species. And they have had success. The population grew by 17% from 1994 to 2014. And the International Union for Conservation of Nature announced that giant pandas are no longer endangered. The animals are still considered vulnerable. Their natural bamboo habitat is threatened by climate change. —By Cristina Fernandez