Since 1985, (almost) all giant pandas in the world have been owned by China. They are loaned, at great expense, to zoos in countries around the world, but the Chinese government can recall these wonderful creatures whenever they want.
There are three pandas who break this rule. Taiwan is home to two of them. The other, whose name is Xin Xin, lives in Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City and she may well be Latin America’s last giant panda.
Xin Xin is the granddaughter of two pandas given to Mexico during the 1970s, at a time of different Chinese panda policy. Before 1985, China used its giant pandas as pawns in geopolitical diplomacy, bequeathing the rare animals as gifts to curry favor. This system ended in 1984, when China switched to high-priced loans, with agreements demanding that any cubs born elsewhere needed to be returned to China. The pandas are lent for between 10 and 15 years at a time, for an annual rate of $1 million.
While any new loan agreements were suspended due the COVID-19, it was restarted after the pandemic, with two pandas notably heading to Qatar to coincide with the 2022 World Cup.
The pandas given to Mexico were known as Pe Pe and Ying Ying. The pair had seven cubs between their arrival in 1975, and Pe Pe’s death in 1988, making them one of the largest giant panda families outside China. The second of the cubs was Tohui, who became the first giant panda to survive infancy outside China, living to age 12. Tohui was Xin Xin’s mother.
For much of this century, Chapultepec Zoo was home to two giant pandas. That sadly came to an end in July last year, when another female, Shuan Shuan, died on her 35th birthday. It made her one of the oldest pandas in the world. Living in the wild, giant pandas have a life expectancy of roughly 15 years, but they can approach 40 when living in captivity.
The success of Chapultepec in housing giant pandas not only makes it one of two zoos in the world to run a panda program outside the control of the Chinese government, but one of the world’s leading institutions on giant pandas. The research conducted there has furthered our understanding of the species, and the cryogenically preserved semen and ovarian tissue they have collected has helped improve conservation, making it more likely that Mexico’s role in protecting giant pandas continues beyond Xin Xin.
Quite how that takes shape, however, is unclear.
Aged 32, Xin Xin is in menopause and without offspring. It seems certain that she will be the last Mexican-owned giant panda, and increasingly possible that she will be the last giant panda living in Mexico for the foreseeable future, with the Mexican government not expected to match China’s annual asking price. Even Fernando Gual, director of Mexico City Zoos and Wildlife Conservation, acknowledged: “Another arrangement will definitely have to be found, but it will depend a lot on the will and necessities of both countries.”
For now, Xin Xin potters happily around her enclosure, one of the zoo’s most popular inhabitants. She enjoys relaxing in her hammock and padding looking for bamboo. Her favorite food is a red apple, which her trainer occasionally hides around the enclosure.
“It’s impossible not to have an attachment to these animals,” Gual said. “We saw most of them being born here.”
The global outlook for giant pandas is more promising than it once was. After decades of conservation efforts, across their wild habits and in captivity, their status has grown from being critically endangered to vulnerable. More than 2,000 now live in the wild.
Whether in the wild in China, on loan to countries around the world or in the rare, internationally-owned position of Xin Xin, the fact remains that giant pandas are one of the most impressive and popular creatures in the world.