Rising trade tensions with China could mean losing the pandas at the Memphis Zoo

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (localmemphis.com) – The Memphis Zoo is one of three zoos nationwide to have pandas from China. The pandas on loan to the U.S. could disappear with trade tensions rising between the U.S. and China.

The National Zoo’s contract is up in December 2020, so the Memphis Zoo will be watching closely with what happens in D.C.

Matt Thompson, the chief zoological officer at the Memphis Zoo, said their contract with China was renewed to 2023. He said the pandas, Le Le and Ya Ya, have been a staple at the zoo since they arrived in 2003. The pandas at the Memphis Zoo are on loan from China and cost about $1.1 million annually. 

“Politics and pandas have always mixed,” Thompson said. “Honestly, we feel like the zoos in the U.S. and the zoos and conservation in China have always worked together and managed to get above politics and do what’s best for the animals.”

Pandas have a history of being a political tool for China. Bringing Le Le and Ya Ya to the Memphis Zoo was efforted by former U.S. Senator from Tennessee and U.S. ambassador to China, Jim Sasser. The gift of pandas from China have been an act of diplomacy. 

Under the Nixon administration in 1972, the first pandas were gifted to the U.S. from China. After a visit to China, former First Lady Pat Nixon fell in love with the pandas and wanted some at the National Zoo. 

However, political analyst Otis Sanford said the Memphis Zoo should watch closely with how the relations between the U.S. and China play out during the trade war. The Chinese have the option to take the pandas back. 

“I doubt that they would be coming in in the middle of an agreement and snatching the pandas out,” Sanford said. “I doubt that’s going to happen, but the Memphis Zoo needs to be concerned.”

Thompson said the relations between the conservationists and zoos in China and the U.S. have always been good. So, he isn’t worried that the pandas will return to China, but he is going to pay close attention to what happens with the pandas at the National Zoo. 

“There’s this ongoing cooperation and collaboration that we have with the Chinese, and it’s been really great.” Thompson said.

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