In part because of the central role they play in U.S.-China geopolitics, pandas have benefited from quality medical treatment and breeding and research efforts at facilities around the world. U.S. zoos, in turn, have benefited from the increased pedestrian traffic and revenue generated by pandas, helping to offset the cost of acquiring and keeping the animals.
In 2016, the giant panda was removed from the threatened list and upgraded to “vulnerable” status of International Union for Conservation of Nature. As the panda’s survival prospects have improved, experts said, China’s approach to panda diplomacy has changed, with animals coming to serve as more of a shield for China’s human rights abuses and a tool to project soft power.
Susan Shirk, president of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, said that if Ms. Mace’s bill was passed, it could hurt a “mutually beneficial” collaboration between panda conservationists around the world.
“Pandas should be bred on the basis of science,” she said, “instead of using it as a form of leverage.”
Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said his organization did not support Ms. Maces’ bill.
“This legislation would risk ending a long-standing program that has contributed to the conservation of wild pandas,” he said in a statement Monday.
That San Diego Zoo had pandas from 1996 to 2019, when the contract with China ended. Donald Lindburg, the zoo’s former director of giant pandas ‘research, said the animals’ lasting appeal to both the zoo and its visitors was simple.
“They were very popular, and many, many people came to see them,” he said. “They’re beautiful.”