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Mayor’s lobbying pays off: San Francisco is getting pandas from China

Now comes the hard part: paying for them. A new enclosure is expected to cost $20 million

A giant panda walks through grass near wooden structures, looking toward the camera.
Giant panda, Xiao Qi Ji is seen in his enclosure at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. in October. | Source: Matt McClain/The Washington Post/Getty Images

San Francisco will receive a pair of pandas, China announced, signaling a big win for Mayor London Breed, who has been lobbying for them since last year.

The news comes as Breed visits Beijing during a weeklong China trip to promote tourism, business investment and cultural exchange. But one unspoken priority of the trip is getting the pandas.

Breed and the China Wildlife Conservation Association signed a memorandum of understanding, officials confirmed late Thursday.

Two people are seated at a table with a "Signing Ceremony" backdrop, flanked by plush panda toys.
Mayor London Breed and the China Wildlife Conservation Association signed a memorandum of understanding on pandas. | Source: Courtesy photo

"[China Wildlife Conservation Association] shall guide [San Francisco Zoo] to make full preparation for the giant panda facility building, food supply, technical expertise and personnel capability," the memorandum of understanding stated, "to ensure to send a pair of giant pandas to [the zoo] in 2025."

Last November, Breed personally asked China’s President Xi Jinping as he was leaving the city after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit to consider lending the country's beloved giant pandas to San Francisco. Breed later followed up with two letters to Xi and a visit to China.

“San Francisco is absolutely thrilled that we will be welcoming Giant Pandas to our San Francisco Zoo,” Breed said in a prepared statement. “It’s an honor that our City has been chosen for the first time to be a long-term home for Giant Pandas.”

The rare fuzzy animals, considered national treasures in China, are expected to bring more tourists to the city and visitors to the San Francisco Zoo.

Zoo CEO Tanya Peterson expressed excitement about the pandas’ arrival and emphasized the zoo’s support for the species' conservation. But the rental agreement doesn’t mean San Franciscans will get to see the pandas anytime soon.

“There are two plans now: a short-term and a long-term one,” Peterson told The Standard.

The short-term plan aims to renovate an existing facility for the pandas, which is estimated to cost $3 million to $5 million and could be completed in about a year, meaning the pandas could arrive in 2025. The second phase of the plan includes building them a new $20 million habitat.

Open folder with a bilingual letter of intent for panda conservation cooperation, dated April 19, 2024, with two signatures.
China will guide the San Francisco Zoo in building the panda facility, according to the memorandum of understanding. | Source: Courtesy photo

She said the zoo will promptly start an ambitious fundraising effort to pay for the habitat.

Peterson said China’s panda experts have already visited the San Francisco Zoo twice to evaluate the zoo’s environment and discuss logistics for hosting the pandas.

Pandas are considered a vulnerable species, with only about 2,500 left in the world. Most reside in the wilderness, but about 600 of them are in zoos or human-controlled habitats around the world.

Safety concerns

The city’s effort to acquire the pandas hasn’t gone 100% smoothly. 

A day before the announcement, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the zoo had serious safety issues and cited a shocking incident involving a bear chasing a zookeeper. Such incidents have fed growing concerns among the staff about the management of the 95-year-old institution, the paper reported.

Peterson said the zoo passed the U.S. Department of Agriculture's annual inspection and stands by its safety standards and operations, and that it works closely with other zoos and experts to ensure the safety of the animals and employees.

Peterson said the bear chase was a confidential personnel matter and the zoo has implemented a “buddy system” to keep workers safe.

The Mayor’s Office couldn’t be reached for comment.

For Jaynry Mak, a Chinese community activist who’s now in Beijing with Breed, she can’t wait for the pandas to come to San Francisco.

“I share the mayor’s excitement and joy in delivering pandas to the SF Zoo,” Mak said. “I’m honored to be a part of the delegation trip. Mayor Breed has demonstrated effective leadership during this trip in strengthening diplomatic and cultural relations with China.”

Han Li can be reached at