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From Curiosity to Conservation

How did giant pandas gain such international recognition? Here is a brief history of how giant pandas came to be known outside of their native China.

First Western encounters

1869 The first Westerner to describe a giant panda was probably French missionary and naturalist Père Armand David, who wrote of a "fine skin of the famous white and black bear" in his journal.

1916 German zoologist Hugo Weigold is credited as the first Westerner to see a live giant panda–a cub he bought while part of the Stoetzner Expedition to China and Tibet (the cub died shortly afterward).

1920s The Chicago Field Museum funded an expedition to China led by Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (sons of President Theodore Roosevelt). The wild giant panda they shot was among the first specimen exhibited in the U.S.

Pandas Come to U.S. zoos

1934 William Harkness, an adventurer, set off to China to capture giant pandas. Although he died within a year, in 1936 his wife Ruth (a New York fashion designer) and her party found Su-Lin, a three-pound giant panda cub, in the wild and brought her to the United States. Su-Lin found a home at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, where she won the hearts of an adoring American public.

1938 Ruth Harkness brought another panda, Mei-Mei, from China to the Brookfield Zoo where it survived until 1942.

1938 The New York Zoological Society brought the giant panda Pandora to the Bronx Zoo.

1939 The Brookfield Zoo acquired its third giant panda, Mei-Lan.

1939 The St. Louis Zoo joined the select list of U.S. zoos with giant pandas when they brought Happy and Pao-Pei to the Midwest.

1941 Pan Dee and Pan Dah were donated to the Bronx Zoo by Madame Chaing Kai-shek in gratitude for relief aid. They died in 1945 and 1951.

Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing

Modern times: The National Zoo leads the way

In the 1950s, few giant pandas were found in the U.S. No new animals had left China, and by the 1960s, the world began to realize their numbers in the wild were dwindling.

Then, in 1972 the People’s Republic of China presented Richard Nixon with a gift of friendship to mark his historic visit to China: the giant pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. Based on its prestigious reputation as a world-class research zoo and a member of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Zoo was selected as the new home for these special gifts.

Ling-Ling lived at the National Zoo until 1992, when she died at 23 years of age. At the time of her death she was the oldest giant panda living in a zoo outside China. Hsing-Hsing was 28 years old when he died in 1999. During their lives at the National Zoo, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling thrilled millions of visitors a year. In that time, National Zoo researchers greatly added to the world’s understanding of giant panda biology.

Conservation Research Continues with New Arrivals

In the early 1990s, National Zoo giant panda experts, together with scientists from around the world, collaborated to create the first giant panda studbook. This management and breeding plan lists all giant pandas and giant panda births in zoos and breeding facilities around the world.

The arrival of Tian Tian and Mei Xiang in December 2000 marks the beginning of an ambitious 10-year research plan to improve the survival rate of giant pandas in zoos and maintain their numbers in the wild.

One goal of this plan, to be carried out by National Zoo biologists and their colleagues in China and the U.S., is a thriving, self-sustaining population of giant pandas in zoos. In turn, this zoo population may ultimately provide a reservoir for the reintroduction of giant pandas to the wild.

In January 2011, the Zoo and the China Wildlife Conservation Association signed a Giant Panda Cooperative Research and Breeding Agreement, whichextends the Zoo’s giant panda program through 2015. Mei and Tian are the focus of an ambitious research, conservation, and breeding program designed to preserve this endangered species.

Our giant pandas inspire millions of zoo visitors a year, while ongoing research adds to a basic understanding of how to manage and ultimately protect giant panda populations in the wild.