Two new pandas born in South Korea end up in China

Many countries have no pandas. Some have just one or two, in the hopes that they might breed. South Korea now has five, thanks to the recent births of twin cubs at Everland theme park just outside Seoul.

But while panda lovers in South Korea celebrate the arrival of the baby bears, a countdown for their relocation to China has already begun. That’s because almost all pandas, even ones born abroad, are considered the property of China – as part of a loan program it has with selected zoos around the world.

If you’re looking at a giant panda in a zoo outside of China, it almost certainly belongs to China.

For decades, China has used its adorable mascots, which are native to a few mountain ranges in south central China, as part of its unique “panda diplomacy” strategy. In 1972, it notably gifted two pandas to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., amid warming relations between the two countries.

Pandas housed in foreign zoos have remained important symbols of cooperation between China and countries around the world. The worldwide panda breeding program is also marketed as a joint research opportunity to broaden panda conservation efforts.

But in the 1980s, faced with dwindling panda numbers, China decided to stop gifting pandas and start loaning them instead.

As part of a captive breeding program to boost the numbers of the vulnerable species, China loans giant pandas to zoos around the world for 10 to 15 years, at a price of up to $1 million per year – funneled into China’s panda conservation efforts.

Zoos also spend an additional hundreds of thousands of dollars to care for pandas, and some even go into serious debt to house them – though pandas have also been credited for their economic benefits as popular zoo attractions.

If loaned pandas die during their care, it’s another expense to incur. When Lin Hui, a celebrity panda at a Thai zoo died, the zoo’s director said that Thailand would have to fork out 15 million baht ($430,000) in insurance payout to China.

There were an estimated 66 pandas across zoos in about 20 countries outside of mainland China. But when their leases are up, the pandas will have to be returned to China.

Pandas born outside of China belong to China, too. Since 1985, China has required that the offspring of loaned pandas be returned to China. Zoos are also required to pay a “baby tax” of at least $200,000 for each cub.

At times, panda hosts have decided to cut their leases short out of practical reasons. Meanwhile, China has also recalled its furry diplomats for political reasons.

A Finnish zoo announced that it was considering returning two giant pandas it had loaned from China because the zoo could no longer afford their hefty upkeep. Similarly, Calgary Zoo in Canada announced in 2020 that, because of a shortage of bamboo during the pandemic, it would be returning a pair of giant pandas to China, four years before they were due to leave the zoo.

In 2019, China recalled two pandas from the San Diego Zoo in California amid an escalating trade war between the two countries.

But panda diplomacy doesn’t look to be ending anytime soon. Back in South Korea, over the past three years, the panda Fu Bao’s close bond with her caretakers at Everland has melted hearts across the world. As her return date draws near, even some Chinese panda fans online are calling for her to remain in South Korea so she can spend more time with her beloved human friends and her new baby sisters—though it would only delay the inevitable.