WASHINGTON >> Giant pandas are everywhere at Washington, D.C.’s National Zoo. Three live in the zoo’s $50 million Asia Trail. T-shirts, trucker hats and refrigerator magnets bear their image. A 24-hour panda cam broadcasts the trio’s every move. Even the QR code to reserve zoo tickets features a panda silhouette.

Now, after more than 50 years, Washington’s pandas are going away — and maybe for good.

The zoo’s three pandas are set to return to China by December with the expiration of a three-year agreement with China’s wildlife agency that month. It’s not just the U.S. capital. The three other U.S. zoos that have Chinese pandas — Atlanta, San Diego and Memphis — have all either turned over their pandas or will see them return to China by the end of next year.

Although both sides deny politics are at play, China has long used “Panda Diplomacy” to curry favor, reward friends and punish adversaries. And the loss of America’s last pandas comes at a moment when ties between the U.S. and China have hit a historic low, with most avenues of cooperation cut off.

In the same vein, any hope that Washington will get new pandas rests on recent signs that ties might be getting a little better — or, at the very least, not getting worse.

“There’s some significance to the fact that all of the pandas in the United States will be back in China by next year,” said Elena Songster, a professor at Saint Mary’s College of California and author of “Panda Nation,” a book about China’s panda policy. “They have a plan. They know what they’re doing.”

The push-and-pull over pandas reflects in part the quirky way they show up in zoos around the world. Zoos don’t get full custody of pandas. Instead, they rent them, signing contracts to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to China.

After years of renewing those contracts, the Smithsonian Institution, which oversees Washington’s zoo, wasn’t able to do so again. Earlier this year, the Memphis Zoo’s panda, Ya Ya, got swept up in a nationalist fervor back home — including accusations of mistreatment — after images showed it looking emaciated and its fur mangy. The animal, which the U.S. and China said was healthy, went home in April.

The U.S. was rewarded with its first pandas after former President Richard Nixon normalized ties in 1972 and many other nations followed. A 2013 study found a correlation between uranium deals and panda loans to Canada and France. In 2018, China loaned out pandas to Finland to mark the centennial of Finnish independence.

“From the goodwill gestures of Nixon-era diplomacy, they’ve evolved into today’s emblems of discord,” said Lizzi C. Lee, a fellow at the Chinese Economy program at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “Pandas have become canvases for narratives of distrust and rivalry.”

There are plenty of non-political reasons why the pandas may be going home now. One explanation is that the pandas leaving U.S. zoos are all reaching the age when they would go home anyway. Some pandas’ departure was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which also slowed China’s loan system.

With pandas no longer classified as endangered, China is building its own network of national parks, and may not feel the need to send them abroad to be conserved and bred.

It’s unclear what comes next for the Washington zoo. The move could be temporary, as happened in 1999 when the zoo went without pandas for a year, given that the pandas are approaching the age when they’d return home anyway. Or China may offer them as a reward in some future diplomatic negotiation.

Tentative signs

Both China and the U.S. have kept open the door to a possible return. That’s in keeping with tentative signs that relations may be reversing their dramatic slide.

President Joe Biden’s goal remains a face-to-face meeting with President Xi Jinping, something that hasn’t happened in almost a year. Xi is expected to attend this year’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in San Francisco, and it’s possible he could bring with him the promise of more pandas for American zoos.

A National Zoo spokeswoman declined to comment on whether new talks were underway. But one person familiar with the Biden administration’s thinking said the U.S. plans to discuss the issue with China between now and the time Washington’s pandas go home.

China’s embassy in Washington also left open the possibility of a happy outcome.

“Many good results have been achieved on breeding, disease prevention and control, technical exchanges and public awareness,” embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu said. He said the two sides are “communicating on future collaboration on giant panda conservation and research.”

People visiting the zoo had a more straightforward response to the pandas’ imminent departure. Among them was Elizabeth Thoms, a stay-at-home mom from Silver Spring, Maryland, who brought her son and daughter to the zoo for the second time in a month this week after learning the pandas would go home.

“My daughter says they’re the most specialest thing in the zoo — and from a four-year-old, that’s quite the compliment,” said Thoms.

Her daughter, Nat, giggled as she watched the National Zoo’s youngest panda, Xiao Qi Ji, try — and fail — to climb a tree.

“They’re goofballs,” she said.

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