When you think of iconic San Diego attractions, what do you picture? Gorgeous beaches may come to mind, but chances are, the San Diego Zoo looms just as large. This should come as no surprise, given its status as the United States’ most-visited zoo.
The vast majority of San Diego visitors know how famous our Zoo is. But there is one question that I’m asked constantly that I would like to address.
Does the San Diego Zoo have pandas? No, the famous black and white bears returned to China in 2019. My husband and I often visited the zoo to see the pandas because they were so cute.
The Zoo partnered with Wolong Breeding Center in China (which we have been to) to study panda reproduction and parenting. As a result, panda births across the last decade have increased, elevating them from an endangered to a vulnerable status.
You’re about to learn why the giant pandas left in addition to the indelible mark they left on the Zoo and panda conservation in general.
History of the San Diego Zoo Giant Pandas
San Diego Zoo’s reputation as a giant panda haven dates back several decades. The first pandas — Basi and Yuan Yuan — didn’t arrive in San Diego until 1987.
It was supposed to be a short 100-day visit. The pandas drew a whopping two million viewers and wound up staying twice as long.
But that wasn’t the end of San Diego’s panda story. Bai Yun and Shi Shi arrived in 1996.
The initial agreement involved, as the Zoo website explains, “a lot of red tape and tons of application paperwork,” resulting in a twelve-year loan from the Chinese government. The loan was extended twice, and Bai Yun lived at the Zoo for 23 years, thanks to her success as a panda mom.
The Zoo developed a special habitat known as the Giant Panda Research Station to accommodate the pandas. You can still see it in the Asian Passage section of the San Diego Zoo.
See also: The Unexpected Origins of San Diego Zoo
Young Pandas Born at the San Diego Zoo
The first panda cub born at San Diego Zoo was born in 1999 and named Hua Mei (translation: China USA). Conceived via artificial insemination, she was also the first panda born in the U.S. to survive to adulthood.
She was such a big deal and why people like me visited San Diego Zoo regularly. It was a joy to watch her evolve from a wide-eyed baby to an adult — tumbling around the enclosure along the way.
The first panda cub is always special.
However, Shi Shi and Bai Yun weren’t an enthusiastic match, partially due to Shi Shi being older than experts initially predicted. So, he returned to China, and in 2003, Gao Gao replaced Shi Shi as a mate for Bai Yun.
It was a match. Bai Yun gave birth to an additional five cubs: Mei Sheng, Su Lin, Zhen Zhen, Yun Zi, and Xiao Liwu.
Each one of these young pandas was welcomed into the world with great excitement from Zoo employees and visitors alike.
Saying Goodbye to the San Diego Zoo Pandas
The Zoo’s status as an oasis for giant pandas finally came to an end in 2019, when it bid farewell to its last two giant pandas: Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu.
This represented the end of the loan program, which had already been extended several times.
The panda departure was marked by what director Dwight Scott referred to as a “fitting celebration” that included a “big thank you to the Chinese people for their continued partnership and our combined conservation accomplishments in helping to save this amazing species.”
Giant Panda Conservation Program Successes
When San Diego’s giant pandas first became long-term zoo residents in 1996, the species was endangered in the wild.
Researchers had long hoped to increase numbers but continuously ran into roadblocks when breeding pandas in captivity.
The San Diego Zoo worked closely with experts from China via its Giant Panda Conservation Program to address these issues. This initiative made the most of the Zoo’s access to pandas, using in-depth research to uncover critical fertility and reproduction issues.
Under the guidance of the Giant Panda Conservation Program, panda cub survival rates quickly improved. Intensive research highlighted the need for twin swapping among cubs, plus higher-quality milk formula for panda newborns. These efforts have made it possible to produce more newborns and keep young pandas alive.
Researchers at the San Diego Zoo were quick to share this information with their partners in China and other U.S. zoos and facilities worldwide.
The program’s long-term success can arguably be attributed to this international focus. You can read more about it on the Zoo’s Science blog.
Why Did the Pandas Leave San Diego?
Panda lovers are quick to ask: “Are there pandas at the San Diego Zoo?”
Once they receive the disappointing answer, “Not anymore,” they speculate as to why these beloved zoo residents had to head home.
The truth is that the pandas were never expected to stay forever.
Former San Diego Zoo panda keeper Dallas Dumont explains that the giant pandas were never expected to remain here forever. “We knew when we started the program that they were not our bears and that they wouldn’t be staying… China believes in having their animals retire back in their country.”
Skeptics question this stance, as the pandas stayed long past the original agreement.
The Smithsonian National Zoo deputy director Brandie Smith vehemently denies diplomacy concerns are involved, explaining that the similar loss of the D.C. zoo’s panda diplomat Bei Bei will ultimately prove most beneficial for all parties involved.
Future Plans for the Giant Panda Conservation Program and Habitat
Despite saying goodbye to its beloved giant pandas, the San Diego Zoo has made it clear that its panda-oriented conservation efforts will continue.
These initiatives may look quite different going forward — and not simply because its giant pandas have returned to China.
San Diego Zoo Global (now known as San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance) chief operating officer Shawn Dixon explains, “Working with our colleagues in China, San Diego Zoo Global is ready to make a commitment for the next stage of our panda program.”
Don’t expect new pandas to come to the San Diego Zoo anytime soon. The attraction will continue to highlight the status of this threatened species, thereby continuing its legacy even if pandas cubs are no longer in residence there.
Who Lives in the Giant Panda Exhibit Now?
Don’t forget about the red pandas! They currently occupy the former giant panda habitat in the Asian Passage section of the Zoo. Here is who you can see in the Asian Passage as you walk through it:
What Zoos Have Pandas?
If you’re determined to see giant pandas, you can still get up close and personal with them at a few American zoos. Your best opportunities include the Zoo Atlanta Panda Pagoda or the Memphis Zoo.
Unable to visit these locations in person? Check out the Memphis Zoo’s panda cam, which shows several pandas’ dayrooms.
Speaking of cams, take a look at archival footage of San Diego Zoo pandas.
San Diego Zoo: Still A Favorite Without Pandas
The San Diego Zoo remains one of Southern California’s most iconic attractions, with or without giant pandas.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the sister park 45 minutes north of the Zoo in Escondido, also offers numerous opportunities for connecting with the natural world.
Stop by either destination (or both!) to discover the sheer joy of being surrounded by wildlife. There’s no better way to spend a delightful day in San Diego.
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