For months, they've been keeping Washington waiting.
No, not the politicians, the pandas. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, two giant pandas on loan from China to Washington's National Zoo, draw enthusiastic crowds, and Mei Xiang, the female of the pair, is believed to be expecting. With only 300 pandas left in breeding zones and zoos around the world, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian have become public symbols for endangered species and conservation efforts.
"We are still in full panda pregnancy watch," announced the National Zoo's Panda Blog .
While their current habitat may look and feel like a bamboo forest in central China, there's little doubt that they're in the middle of Washington D.C. -- in more ways than one. As part of President Hu Jintao's official state dinner welcome in January of 2011, the announcement was made of a new five-year, $2.5 million deal between the Smithsonian Institution and the China Wildlife Conservation Association. The Panda Cooperative Research and Breeding Agreement allowed Washington's furriest duo to stay in the nation's capital.
But as with many international agreements, there was an asterisk. The fine print said that if breeding was unsuccessful, either Mei Xiang or Tian Tian could be exchanged for a different mate from the Chinese panda program. Additionally, the loan agreement ensures that any newborn panda must be immediately returned to China for breeding.
U.S.-China relations have been never been simple. But panda diplomacy is not a new tactic in strengthening international ties. Since the Tang Dynasty from A.D. 618 to 907, China has been sending its national treasure to other countries as a symbol of gratitude. The first panda couple to be donated to the American people followed President Richard Nixon's historic 1972 trip to China, one that marked a new beginning for the long-time foes. Greeted with an official ceremony hosted by the first lady, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing lived at the National Zoo for more than twenty years.
Today, while most Washington politicos return home after two weeks of conventions, there is a different kind of drama taking place inside the beltway. Mei Xiang's most recent ultrasound was inconclusive. While the zoo is hopeful that she will continue with the tests, they say it is "entirely her decision."
In the meantime, the zoo is doing everything it can to create an environment conducive to a successful pregnancy, including keeping visitors at a distance to prevent noise-related stress. As to not disrupt their peaceful habitat, zoo-goers must now watch the power panda couple from a distance on a "panda cam."
Despite a visit from a Chinese breeding guru, eight unsuccessful artificial insemination attempts and nearly five years of waiting, the zoo remains optimistic. Recently, Mei's caretakers have noticed that she has been sleeping more, has less of an appetite and chooses to make a nest out of her bamboo rather than eat it -- all signs that she might be nearing the end of her pregnancy -- or pseudopregnancy. But for now it's still a guessing game, one with no guarantees for China, the United States, or the potentially pregnant -- and positively political -- panda.