All giant pandas are owned by China

Last week, a panda cub was born to Mei Xiang at the National Zoo. Given the rarity of panda births, this was pretty big news, especially in the nation’s capital.

Turns out, that brand new panda baby instantly belongs to China. As do all other pandas on the planet. I was a little shocked by this. Every single giant panda in the world belongs to China.

Originally, China gave pandas to others — no strings attached. Starting in the 1950s, the Chinese government used the popularity (and adorableness) of giant pandas to curry favor with other nations, by gifting the creatures to governments around the world. In 1972, for example, China gave two giant pandas to the United States as thanks for President Nixon’s visit to their nation (which itself historically began to normalize the relationship between the two). First Lady Pat Nixon ensured that those two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, were housed at the National Zoo. The program was very successful. Other countries — many who had little in the way of relations with China — asked for pandas as well. But in 1984, China stopped giving pandas away. Instead, the Chinese government began loaning them out.

Under the terms of the revised Chinese plan, zoos were offered pandas only for a ten-year period. (There’s some evidence that renewals are possible.) Because all the pandas now in captivity outside of China were born after the 1984 change, “all giant pandas outside China are actually on loan from the country,” as NPR points out. The cost of renting a panda is $1,000,000 per year, to be payable to China’s Wildlife Conservation Association. And, perhaps most strikingly, the lease agreement requires that any cubs born to loaned-out pandas be returned to to China. So if Mei Xiang’s recent addition survives, the baby will likely go back to China at some point early on in its life. The good news, though, is that the baby will be reunited with its brother. Tai Shan, a panda born to Mei Xiang in 2005, was returned to China in 2009.

Pretty interesting and, seemingly, pretty ironclad.