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Two giant pandas are moving to a California zoo in a rare loan from China

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

China is sending two giant pandas to the San Diego Zoo – the first time it has granted new panda loans to the United States in two decades.

A spokesperson for the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance confirmed to CNN Wednesday that the zoo would be receiving the two pandas, saying there was no official timeline for their arrival, but they are “optimistic we will get pandas in the not-so-distant future.”

The news comes just months after Chinese leader Xi Jinping suggested China could send new pandas to the US, specifically to the San Diego Zoo, as “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.”

“We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation, and do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples,” Xi said in November.

His comments came shortly after the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC sent its three pandas back to China – marking the end of more than 50 years of Chinese pandas being housed at the zoo. The National Zoo was the first US zoo to showcase pandas, and the end of its program had left Zoo Atlanta as the only other US zoo to feature pandas.

San Diego Zoo returned its last two pandas to China in 2019, after its loan agreement ended.

China loans pandas to more than 20 countries under a program often referred to as “panda diplomacy.”

Over the past decade, Xi has approved new panda loans across Europe, including to Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland. In 2022, China sent a pair of pandas to Qatar, in the first loan to a Middle Eastern country.

China acknowledges the cuddly creatures are used for its “major political and diplomatic needs,” especially in places where it hopes to gain more influence or closer relations.

“Ensuring the health and safety of giant pandas living abroad is the most important basis for international cooperation,” the head of the China Wildlife Conservation Association told state-run Xinhua news agency Thursday in an article on the upcoming loan to San Diego Zoo.

Beijing’s panda diplomacy with Washington began in 1972, but the number of loans to the US have dwindled in recent years in tune with worsening US-China relations. Xi’s statement in November was seen as a gesture aimed at easing fraught ties between the two powers, coming hours after he held extensive talks with US President Joe Biden.

And other US zoos are hopeful that pandas could return in greater numbers, with the Smithsonian National Zoo saying in November it had applied to receive more of the iconic animals.

According to Xinhua, discussions are ongoing for “a new round of cooperation” with the National Zoo and a zoo in Austria.

Fewer than 2,000 giant pandas remain in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which lists the species as vulnerable.

CNN’s Yong Xiong, Melissa Gray, David Culver and Nectar Gan contributed to this report.

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