By Fabiola Sanchez | The Associated Press
MEXICO CITY – Shin Shin, the last panda in Latin America, is not your average bear. Born in Mexico, she is the only remaining member of the diaspora descended from giant pandas that China received as gifts to foreign countries during the 1970s and 1980s.
The Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico is one of the only two zoos that house pandas without the direct supervision of the Chinese government. This era may soon end after more than 50 years because China Xin, the granddaughter of the pandas as a gift from China, is childless, menopausal and, at 32, very old.
This could be the end of pandas in Latin America altogether if the Mexican government waives the price of a new panda.
Xin Xin is a second-generation panda born in Mexico, tracing her lineage back to Papa Ying Ying, who arrived at the zoo in 1975. They were part of China’s early “panda diplomacy,” a time when the charismatic animals were gifted to countries around the world. In 1984, China ended the panda gifts, and switched to a policy of high cost loans.
This history has made Mexico one of the few countries able to keep locally born panda cubs. Since 1985, the loan program has required zoos to return any puppies to China.
After Xuan Xuan’s death, Mexican officials began talking to the Chinese ambassador. China now accompanies giant pandas for 10 to 15 years at a cost of $1 million a year, designed to support panda conservation in China.
The austere administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is unlikely to agree to that price. “Definitely another arrangement will have to be found, but it will depend a lot on the will and needs of both countries,” said Fernando Goel, director of Mexico City’s zoos and wildlife conservation.
Shin Shin’s own interests are more modest. She spends her time relaxing in a hammock and paddling peacefully around her compound in search of bamboo. Sometimes, her trainer also hides her favorite treat, red apples.
Watching Shin Shin, Goel smiled as he recalled the morning of July 1, 1990, when Emma Tuhui surprised everyone at the zoo when she gave birth to a four-ounce Shin Shin, far from the camera that recorded her movements 24 hours a day.
“It’s impossible not to have a bond with these animals,” Goel said. “We saw most of them being born here.” Tuhui was the second panda ever born outside of China, and the first to survive infancy, living to age 12. Pop star Yuri released a song expressing the city’s pride and excitement.
The lifespan of a giant panda in the wild is about 15 years, but in captivity they live up to 38 years old. Decades of conservation efforts in the wild and research in captivity have saved the giant panda from extinction, increasing its population from less than 1,000 at one time to more than 1,800 today in the wild and in captivity.
Mexico’s remarkable success makes it one of only two zoos to run a panda program outside the control of the Chinese government, according to the Congressional Research Service. The other is in Taiwan, which received two pandas in 2008 in exchange for a pair of endangered sika deer.
Eight pandas were born in Mexico, of which five survived to adulthood. Decades of research at the Chapultepec Zoo have yielded extensive knowledge, as well as genetic material—cryogenically preserved sperm and ovarian tissue—that scientists here hope will allow them to continue helping panda conservation even after Xin Xin is gone.
Carlos Serra Doñas, a researcher at the Monterrey Institute of Technology who has studied panda diplomacy, said Mexico’s strategic importance could encourage China to make a deal, but López Obrador’s preference for austerity could make reaching a deal very difficult.
China temporarily suspended new panda loans during the COVID-19 pandemic, but President Xi Jinping’s government recently revived it, sending a pair of pandas to World Cup host Qatar.
China is Mexico’s second most important trading partner, behind the United States, and the Chinese government has worked to expand its influence in Latin America. The possibility of leaving the region without any pandas could be leverage for Mexico.
What there is no doubt about is the attraction of the pandas.
In the Chapultepec Zoo there is a panda museum that displays photographs of the animals over the years, plaster casts of their footprints, pieces of panda hair and dozens of children’s drawings. Xuan Xuan’s latest birthday piñata is also there.
But Shin Shin is the real attraction. She received a piñata for her birthday, shaped like a panda and stuffed with apples and carrots, on July 1.
On the last day, Juan Vicente Araya from Costa Rica admired Shin Shin, alongside his family.
“When we decided to go to Mexico, from the oldest to the youngest, everyone in the house came with the dream of seeing a panda,” said Araya, as he stroked the head of his young son, who was playing with a stuffed panda his parents bought him on a visit.
Araya, who works for an American company, said the first thing his group of family and friends did after arriving in Mexico City from Costa Rica was to go to the zoo to see Shin Shin.
“In Latin America we don’t have many opportunities to see a panda,” he said. “The truth is that it was worth it for us to come from Costa Rica. We are very excited to meet her.”