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Application to United States Fish and Wildlife Service details San Diego Zoo's panda plans

San Diego Zoo giant panda Yun Chuan
Posted at 6:12 PM, May 22, 2024

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — The San Diego Zoo expects to have its renovated panda habitat completed in June, according to details described in its application to import two giant pandas from China submitted to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The 168-page document was obtained by ABC 10News in a public records request.

The document includes the agreement between the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and China, which governs the animals' care, as well as scientific and conservation initiatives. It also includes details plans for the renovations to the panda habitat at the zoo, an area which was never redeveloped in the five years since pandas first left, signaling the zoo's hope and confidence that the beloved bears would someday return.

That confidence was paid off in November, 2023 when China's president delivered a pleasant surprise following a meeting with President Joe Biden, saying his country was prepared to continue its panda conservation partnerships in the United States, specifically mentioning the San Diego Zoo.

The application to FWS obtained by ABC 10News was signed in February. Zoo officials subsequently traveled to China to meet the two bears selected to move to San Diego.

The plans for the habitat show that the previous exhibit, which had been split into two sections, will be combined into one, giving the pandas significantly more room to roam.

In addition, a neighboring habitat will be re-purposed as a second panda exhibit, creating additional options for when the bears are in public view. The renovations will also create more room for visitors, who may remember waiting in lines that sometimes stretched more than an hour to see pandas during their previous stint in San Diego.

The agreement with China to keep giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo is for ten years and has many other details strictly governing the care of the animals, access for Chinese experts, and protocols for various contigencies. That includes what would happen in the event of a panda death at the San Diego Zoo, something which did not happen the first time around.

In the event that a cub is born, the agreement dictates that it would remain in San Diego at least until reaching the age of two, but would be sent to China no later than the age of four.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is currently accepting public comment on the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance application. As of the airing of this story, only three comments have been submitted, with two in favor and one against. The public can comment through the FWS website through May 28.

Once the application is formally approved, the timing of the pandas' transporation to San Diego can be finalized, though Zoo officials have previously told ABC 10News that is expected to occur before the end of summer. There would be a quarantine period before the pandas would be unveiled for public view.

While the habitat renovations are expected to be complete before the pandas arrive, the application also contains a contingency plan in case the work is ongoing, which would involve utilizing the habitats currently occupied by other bear species.

ABC 10News requested an interview with SDZWA officials for this story, but the invitation was declined.