Down to its last panda, Mexico ponders what could come next
Xin Xin, the last giant panda in Latin America, looks out from her enclosure at the Chapultepec Zoo, in Mexico City, Friday, Nov. 11, 2022. At age 32, Xin Xin is among the oldest captive giant pandas ever. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
By FABIOLA SÁNCHEZ
MEXICO CITY — Xin Xin, the last panda in Latin America, is not your average bear. A native of Mexico, she’s the only remaining member of a diaspora descended from giant pandas China gifted to foreign countries during the 1970s and 1980s.
Mexico’s Chapultepec Zoo is one of only two zoos that houses pandas without the direct supervision of the Chinese government. That era may soon end after more than 50 years because Xin Xin, the granddaughter of pandas gifted by China, is childless, in menopause and, at 32, very old.
It could be the end for pandas in Latin America altogether if Mexico's government balks at the price of a new panda.
Xin Xin is a second-generation Mexican-born panda, tracing her lineage to Pe Pe and Ying Ying, who arrived to the zoo in 1975. They were part of China's early “panda diplomacy,” a period when the charismatic animals were gifted to countries around the world. In 1984, China ended panda gifts, switching to a policy of high-priced loans.
This history has made Mexico one of a few countries able to keep locally born panda cubs. Since 1985, the loan program has required that zoos return any cubs to China.
After Shuan Shuan’s death, Mexican officials began speaking with China’s ambassador. China now loans giant pandas for between 10 and 15 years at a cost of $1 million annually, meant to support panda conservation in China.
The austere administration of Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador appears unlikely to agree to this price. “Another arrangement will definitely have to be found, but it will depend a lot on the will and necessities of both countries,” said Fernando Gual, director of Mexico City Zoos and Wildlife Conservation.
Xin Xin's own interests are more down to earth. She passes the time relaxing in a hammock and padding tranquilly around her enclosure looking for bamboo. Sometimes, her trainer also hides her favorite treat, red apples.
Watching Xin Xin, Gual smiled as he remembered the July 1, 1990 morning when her mother Tohui surprised everyone at the zoo by giving birth to a four-ounce Xin Xin, far from the camera that recorded her movements 24 hours a day.
“It’s impossible not to have an attachment to these animals,” Gual said. “We saw most of them being born here.” Tohui was the second panda ever born outside China, and the first to survive infancy, living to age 12. Pop star Yuri released a song expressing the city’s pride and excitement.
The life expectancy of a giant panda in the wild is about 15 years, but in captivity they have lived to be as old as 38. Decades of conservation efforts in the wild and study in captivity saved the giant panda from extinction, increasing its population from fewer than 1,000 at one time to more than 1,800 today in the wild and captivity.
Mexico's remarkable success makes it one of only two zoos to run a panda program outside the control of the Chinese government, according to the Congressional Research Service. The other is in Taiwan, which received two pandas in 2008 in exchange of a pair of endangered sika deer.
Eight pandas have been born at in Mexico, of whom five survived to adulthood. Decades of study at the Chapultepec Zoo have yielded extensive knowledge, as well as genetic material — cryogenically preserved semen and ovarian tissue — that scientists here hope will allow them to continue assisting in the pandas’ conservation even after Xin Xin is gone.
Carlos Cerda Dueñas, a researcher at the Monterrey Institute of Technology who has studied panda diplomacy, said that Mexico’s strategic importance could encourage China to make a deal, but that López Obrador’s preference for austerity could make reaching an agreement “very difficult.”
China’s suspended new panda loans for a time during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the government of President Xi Jinping recently revived it, sending a pair of pandas to World Cup host Qatar.
China is Mexico’s second most important trade partner, behind the United States, and China's government has been working to expand its influence in Latin America. The possibility of leaving the region without any pandas could be leverage for Mexico.
What is not in doubt is the drawing power of the pandas.
At the Chapultepec Zoo there is a panda museum displaying photographs of the animals over the years, plaster casts of their footprints, bits of panda hair and dozens of children’s drawings. Shuan Shuan’s last birthday piñata is there too.
But Xin Xin is the real attraction. She got a birthday piñata, shaped like a panda and stuffed with apples and carrots, on July 1.
On a recent day, Juan Vicente Araya of Costa Rica marveled at Xin Xin, alongside his family.
“When we decided to travel to Mexico, from the oldest to the youngest, everyone at home came with the dream of being able to see a panda,” Araya said, as he patted the head of his young son, who was playing with a stuffed panda his parents bought him on the visit.
Araya, who works for a U.S. company, said the first thing his group of family and friends did after arriving in Mexico City from Costa Rica was to go to the zoo to see Xin Xin.
“In Latin America we don’t have a lot of opportunities to see a panda,” he said. “The truth is it was worth it for us to come from Costa Rica. We’re very excited to meet her.”