Originally created 07/05/99

National Zoo proposes 10-year panda lease



WASHINGTON -- Officials at the National Zoo have made a 10-year, $2.5 million offer to lease a pair of giant pandas from China.

A team of three zoo officials and researchers have been in China for a week to discuss a possible panda rental -- China no longer sells or gives away the endangered species -- and were scheduled to return to Washington Saturday night, said Robert Hoage, the zoo's chief of public affairs.

The team, led by Benjamin Beck, the zoo's associate director for biological programs, is scheduled to meet with top zoo officials Tuesday.

The zoo's one remaining panda, Hsing Hsing (pronounced Shing Shing), is 28 and suffers from an irreversible kidney condition. He and another panda, Ling Ling, were diplomatic gifts from China in 1972 after President Nixon's historic visit. Ling Ling died seven years ago, and none of the pair's five cubs survived.

The only other two pandas in the United States are at the San Diego Zoo.

An estimated 1,000 giant pandas live in the wild in China, their only native habitat, and 100 live in Chinese zoos. Since they are endangered, China no longer gives pandas as gifts and does not sell pandas overseas.

Zoo Atlanta, however, recently reached an agreement to lease a pair of 2-year-old pandas as part of a 10-year study on why pandas are not interested in mating while in captivity, said Georgia Tech scientist Rebecca Snyder.

In return for the loan, Zoo Atlanta has agreed to raise $11 million for panda research and education programs in China and Atlanta by 2007, zoo officials said.

The National Zoo, one of the few U.S. zoos that charge no admission, cannot afford $11 million for two pandas and instead hopes China will accept its offer of limited funding along with proposals for extensive, collaborative educational and research projects, Hoage said.

Those include the development of a national census of giant pandas in the wild; development of a radio tracking and satellite monitoring system of pandas and research and training projects in veterinary, nutritional, behavioral and ecological studies on pandas.

"We've been doing these studies and working with them off and on now for years," Hoage said of the collaborative research with China. "There's more of an emphasis now, but it's not something brand new."

Other costs associated with two new pandas include the $400,000 a year to maintain them and a proposed $3.5 million plan to refurbish the giant panda house, Hoage said.

The zoo anticipates some financial return -- possibly as much as $1 million a year in increased concession sales -- if China does accept its offer, he said.