The National Zoo Is Celebrating 50 Years of Caring For Pandas, Which They Helped Save from the Brink of Extinction

The National Zoo, located in Washington D.C., has been caring for pandas since 1962 when they welcomed their first giant bears—Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing.

Two giant pandas in a tree
Photo: Buena Vista Images / Getty Images

Known for their love of bamboo and trademark black-and-white fur, pandas are adorable animals that can be found in zoos around the world, but there is one zoo in particular to thank for that. Since 1972, following President Richard Nixon's official visit to China, two pandas were delivered to The Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. in an effort to save the species from extinction. Since then the zoo has continued its efforts to grow the panda population, as well as preserve and protect the species, and on April 16 it will celebrate 50 years of caring for pandas.

The first residents of the zoo that kicked off its panda conservation efforts were named Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. According to a report by People pandas were named an endangered species shortly after the two pandas arrived at the United States capital. This classification was largely due to shrinking of the bear's natural habitat in the bamboo forests in China. At the time, a survey found only 1,000 to 1,100 bears left in the wild—a population so dangerously low that scientists, ecologists, biologists, veterinarians, and more throughout the world were compelled to save the species. "It is a true collaboration between China and the U.S., and globally," Janine Brown, who leads the endocrinology lab at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, told People. "They want their flagship species to survive, and we obviously want it as well. It's really heartwarming to see how hard everybody works to get this done."

While the attempt to save the bears has been largely successful, it hasn't been easy. Female pandas can only get pregnant during a single 24- to 48-hour period each year, which Brown says "works against them from a survival standpoint." What's more, just because a live birth takes place, doesn't mean the cub will survive. When cubs are born, they weigh less than one pound and their health is largely touch and go because of their underdeveloped features. "We had some problems with our first pair of pandas that would get pregnant and the cubs wouldn't survive—they are a real challenge in every way you look at it," Brown said. Due to Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing's struggle to conceive, the zoo brought in two more giant pandas named Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, who currently reside in D.C. and have successfully bred four offspring.

Despite its panda fertility issues, the zoo is considered a world leader at breeding giant pandas and has helped contribute to the successful efforts to improve the species' numbers in the wild. Today, because of worldwide efforts to save the bears, there are currently about 1,800 giant pandas living in the wild and another 600 in captivity in China, according to People. What's more, as of 2021, the species was reclassified from endangered to vulnerable. The efforts of the National Zoo have led to even more successful zoo and sanctuary programs for pandas globally, and because of their work, about a dozen pandas in captivity have been set free in China's bamboo forests. "I honestly didn't know that I would ever see that, so as you can imagine, it is extremely exciting," Brown said. "We're just so happy."

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