WASHINGTON — Washington's beloved pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, will be allowed to stay at the Smithsonian National Zoo for five more years, Chinese officials announced Wednesday amid a lavish state visit by China's president.
The panda pair will remain in Washington until December 2015 for cooperative research under a five-year, $2.5 million extension of the 10-year, $10 million agreement that expired last month, China Wildlife Conservation Association Secretary General Zang Chunlin said.
The announcement came as Chinese President Hu Jintao was in Washington, where he meet President Barack Obama at the White House.
Pandas have a long history intertwined with U.S.-China politics. The first panda couple, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, arrived in 1972 as a gift to the American people and lived more than 20 years at the zoo after President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China. Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing produced five cubs, but none of them survived.
"This is a great opportunity for the American people to know more about Chinese culture and this is also an opportunity to advance our friendship and to deepen understanding," Zang said through an interpreter.
The exchange has helped foster friendship between China and the United States and raise awareness of the need to protect giant pandas. Zang said the exchange also has produced some technical advances. The zoo has resolved problems with captive giant panda breeding and helped breed a male cub, Tai Shan, he noted.
Officials plan to sign the new agreement Thursday morning at the zoo's giant panda habitat. National Zoo officials could not be reached for comment on the announcement Wednesday.
Millions tuned in to watch Tai Shan grow up on the zoo's panda web cam and he gained a near-rockstar following before he was returned to China last year at age 4, upsetting many fans. Under the Smithsonian's panda loan agreement, any cub born at the zoo must be returned to China for breeding.
"The cubs belong to China and when they (reach) a certain age they should be returned to China," Zang said. "It's very hard for the local people to say goodbye whenever they have to part with these giant pandas."
Tai Shan was born in 2005 following artificial insemination. Since then, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian have tried to mate and doctors have artificially inseminated Mei Xiang, but with no luck.
As part of the current agreement, Zang said China will send experts in areas such as breeding and cub raising.
"We hope to see some good results at an early date," he said.
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