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San Francisco hasn’t hosted pandas in 40 years. Mayor aims to change that

A pandas playfully climbing in a lush, green tree.
Giant Panda Xiao Qi Ji hangs upside down from a tree in its enclosure at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, DC on November 7, 2023. | Source: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

When Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the return of “panda diplomacy” in November during the APEC summit in San Francisco, Mayor London Breed saw an opportunity.

In an ebullient letter sent to Xi just weeks later, Breed asked China to consider San Francisco Zoo as a new home for the rare and fuzzy animals. Although other U.S. zoos, including the San Diego Zoo and the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., have previously hosted pandas, San Francisco never hosted one long term.

“To grow our friendship, to greatly benefit our youth, and to continue our joint efforts on panda conservation,” Breed said in the Dec. 1 letter, “I propose … that we establish a partnership in which our San Francisco Zoo will host your cherished diplomats—Giant Pandas.”

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Native to China, pandas are considered a vulnerable species, with only about 2,500 left in the world, mostly in the wilderness and about 600 of them in zoos or under human-controlled habitats around the world.

In China, pandas are called a “national treasure,” and since the country’s opening in the 1970s, they have become a symbol of China itself. Beijing’s decadeslong “panda diplomacy” initiative has lent the animals to foreign zoos, and a panda was a mascot of the 2008 Summer Olympics, hosted by Beijing.

However, in recent years, China has been returning many of the pandas it lent to overseas zoos as loan agreements have run out. The National Zoo, which has hosted pandas since 1972, sent its two pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, back to China in November, leaving Atlanta as the only U.S. zoo with the gentle, six-fingered herbivores.

During November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco, Xi hinted that pandas will come back to California—specifically, to the San Diego Zoo, which first housed pandas in the 1990s. The zoo returned the last of its pandas to China in 2019.

President Joe Biden shakes the hand of China's President President Xi Jinping next to a large wooden door.
President Joe Biden greets China's President President Xi Jinping at the Filoli Estate in Woodside, California on Nov. 15, 2023, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative conference. | Source: Doug Mills/The New York Times/AP/Pool

“We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation,” Xi said, “and to do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians to deepen friendly ties between our peoples.”

Wang Yi, China’s minister of foreign affairs, said last week that a panda’s return to California within the year is on track, though he did not specify at which zoo. 

But sources familiar with the matter confirmed that officials from both countries are working to bring at least one panda to San Francisco by 2025. The process takes time but is on a “good track,” they said, adding that Chinese engineers have already visited San Francisco Zoo to assess how to create a proper environment for pandas at the site. 

The zoo did not respond to a request for comment.

Panda Proposal Was Hatched Before APEC 

Mason Lee, a spokesperson for Breed, said the city had been planning to request a panda from China months before APEC.

“Seizing every opportunity to make San Francisco shine has always been one of Mayor Breed’s top priorities,” Lee told The Standard. “She utilized every interaction with representatives from the Chinese government during APEC to discuss the [panda] matter further, leading to her direct ask to President Xi Jinping as she was bidding him farewell on the SFO tarmac.”

Breed went to the airport and was photographed shaking hands with Xi as he departed for Beijing after APEC. Gov. Gavin Newsom also made a high-profile visit to China in October.

Even San Francisco’s Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the former House Speaker who has long been an ally of Taiwan and critic of Beijing, admitted that she would be happy to see a panda coming.

“As excited as I am about a panda, and that’s pretty exciting,” Pelosi said at an APEC dinner event hosted by Taiwan’s officials in San Francisco, “it’s no substitute for democracy.”

San Diego Zoo leaders remain optimistic about their chances for a panda or two. 

“We are excited to hear of President Xi’s commitment in continuing the giant panda conservation efforts between our two countries,” Paul A. Baribault, president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Zoo, said in a statement to The Standard. “Conservation starts with people, and our team is committed to working with our partners to welcome the next generation of giant pandas to our zoo.”

But since APEC, the San Francisco Bay Area has become a focus for efforts to improve the U.S.-China relationship, and the arrival of panda could lend further momentum.

In a Jan. 3 speech, China’s consul general in San Francisco, Jianmin Zhang, sounded hopeful about the future of U.S.-China relations. Zhang noted that since APEC, multiple Chinese provincial leaders have visited San Francisco and, likewise, more American delegations have expressed interest in visiting China.

Is the Zoo Ready?

Hosting pandas is an expensive proposition. Host zoos typically pay a fee that can range from $500,000 to $1 million per year per panda, not to mention the daily supply of bamboo and other health care expenses.

The image shows the San Francisco Zoo sign with animal silhouettes above it, surrounded by greenery under a clear blue sky.
The entrance to the San Francisco Zoo is pictured on the Great Highway on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024. Mayor London Breed sent a letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping requesting a panda. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

San Francisco Zoo, in a chilly and foggy area near the coastline, can be a good fit for pandas as they prefer cooler temperatures than heat. But still, the zoo likely needs to build a multimillion-dollar structure to accommodate any pandas as well. Atlanta’s zoo spent $7 million to build its panda habitat in 1999.

According to the San Francisco Zoo’s website, it has already created an Asian conservation zone, and Breed said in her letter to Xi that the area was specifically designed to contain a space for a “Panda Reserve.”

If a panda or two were to come to San Francisco, it wouldn’t be the first time the animals have made an appearance here.

The first pandas in the United States stopped in San Francisco in 1936 before going on a national tour. During the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, two pandas were lent out in support of the event, stopping by the San Francisco Zoo for three months. Known as Yun Yun and Ying Xin, they attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors and that period remains the busiest period the San Francisco Zoo has ever experienced, according to Breed.

“San Francisco does not simply stand ready,” Breed said in the letter to Xi. “We stand with both confidence and excitement that we can be great partners in panda conservation.”

Han Li can be reached at