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Column 051313 Wall

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Giant Pandas of Mexico City's Rewarding Chapultepec Park

By Allan Wall

The panda is a magnificent creature, which fascinates many people and has become a living symbol of wildlife conservation.

Also known as the panda bear or giant panda, the animal’s scientific name is Ailuropoda melanoleuca. It’s an endangered species, native to central China (see map here), where its habitat has been greatly reduced.

Don’t let this bear’s cute and cuddly appearance fool you, as pandas have been known to attack people, out of sheer irritation.

Despite its size, the panda is a fragile animal survival-wise.  The animal subsists almost entirely (99%) on bamboo, and it has a very slow reproductive cycle (one cub every two years).

Most of the world’s zoos don’t have pandas.

From 1958 to 1982, the Chinese government practiced “panda diplomacy,” by giving pandas to foreign governments.  During that time period it donated 23 pandas to nine different countries.

In 1972, for example, after President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, the Chinese  gave the United States a pair of pandas.  They were Ling-Ling (the female) and Hsing-Hsing (the male), and the two made quite a stir at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

In 1975, China gave Mexico a pair of pandas, PePe and Ying Ying.  The pair was housed in Mexico City’s famous zoo in Chapultepec Park.

It’s a good zoo to visit (with free admission).  At 5.5 million visitors annually, it’s the park’s most-visited attraction.

(My family and I visited the park the the summer before last, and I invite you to read my article Chapultepec: Mexico City’s Urban Forest, which has some nice photographs taken by my wife and sons.)

Chapultepec Zoo has had a successful breeding program, considering that it’s difficult for pandas in captivity to reproduce and for their cubs to survive.  Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, the aforementioned pair donated to the United States, had five cubs but not a one lived more than a few days.

Outside of China, Chapultepec Zoo was the first zoo in modern times in which a panda cub was born.  It was also the first zoo in which a panda cub was born and then survived.   To date a total of eight cubs have been born there.

Up until April 27th, 2013, the zoo had three female giant pandas, all three descended  from that original pair donated by China in 1975.  The three pandas were Shuan Shuan (Double Double), Xin Xin (Hope Hope), and Xiu Hua (Flower of Lion’s Tooth).

On April 27th Xiu Hua, born a cub to Chapultepec’s original pair of pandas in 1985,  died a natural death.

That leaves Shuan Shuan (26) and Xin Xin (going on 23).  The plan is for Xin Xin to be bred in 2014.

There are currently 43 pandas housed in zoos outside of China, in 17 zoos in 12 different countries.  Besides Mexico’s Chapultepec, the pandas are housed  in zoos in Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Austria, Spain,  Scotland, and the United States (Atlanta, Memphis, San Diego, and Washington, D.C.).

Regarding the aforementioned “Panda Diplomacy” in the 1980s, China stopped giving pandas away and started loaning them to foreign zoos for ten-year periods, for a fee of course. 

Of all zoo animals, the panda is the most expensive to keep, costing five times more to maintain than an elephant.  So zoos that get a panda on loan from China have to pay for the animal’s upkeep and the annual payments to China, which may reach a million dollars.

People love pandas, and the international project of conserving this magnificent but fragile creature continues.  Mexico’s Chapultepec Zoo is a part of that effort.


Allan Wall, an educator, resided in Mexico for many years.  His website is located at

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