Giant pandas returning to the National Zoo in DC

Two new giant pandas will be arriving at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, DC, this year, the zoo announced Wednesday.

The bears, named Qing Bao and Bao Li, a pair of 2-year-old black-and-white animals, will arrive by the end of 2024 through a partnership with the China Wildlife Conservation Association, the zoo said.

In a video announcement featuring first lady Jill Biden planning a “black tie,” vegetarian dinner for the iconic bears, the zoo celebrated the news.

“I’m so proud to say that this long-standing program and this collaboration with our Chinese colleagues is one of the reasons why giant pandas are no longer listed as endangered, but rather only vulnerable on the global list of species at risk of extinction,” Brandie Smith, director of the zoo’s Conservation Biology Institute, told reporters Wednesday.

The institute is seeking $25 million in public and corporate donations to support the pandas over the next 10 years.

Chinese ambassador Xie Feng touted the journey of the “newest envoys of friendship” as a symbol of the deepening of “friendly ties” between the US and China.

“China and the United States should choose to be partners, not rivals,” Feng said. “Panda huggers should not be stigmatized. If there should be any protectionism, then let us protect biodiversity; protect the only home for the entire humanity; protect stable, sound and sustainable China-US relations and protect a better future for the younger generations.”

Bao Li has ties to Washington: His mother, Bao Bao, was born at the zoo in 2013 and his grandparents, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, left an unbearable panda-shaped hole in DC residents’ hearts last year when they bid farewell to the zoo.

Last year, the Smithsonian’s three giant pandas – Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and their youngest cub, Xiao Qi Ji – departed the National Zoo, prompting concerns that the 50-year history of the bears being housed in the US capital could be coming to an end.

At the time, Smithsonian staff called the departure a “hiatus,” but Chinese officials had yet to clarify the future of the program.

In a meeting with American business leaders last November in San Francisco, Chinese President Xi Jinping suggested China might renew the panda exchange with the United States, calling them “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples,” during a visit largely aimed at easing fraught ties between the two powers.

“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 at the time.

The return of the bamboo-loving bears may mark a new chapter of decades of “panda diplomacy.”

With tensions rising in the Indo-Pacific – notably following large-scale joint Chinese military drills around Taiwan following the inauguration of the island’s new president – the relationship between the US and China hangs in a precarious balance.

Zoo Atlanta’s four iconic pandas will depart for China later this year, as the zoo’s agreement with China is set to expire in late 2024. Their journey follows the departure of pandas from the San Diego and Memphis zoos.

More pandas are set to arrive in other parts of the country, as well. In April, it was announced China would send giant pandas to San Francisco’s zoo for the first time, and the San Diego Zoo announced in February it would welcome two new black-and-white residents.

This story has been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Lauren Mascarenhas and DJ Judd contributed to this report.

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