Sept. 30, 2007 -- At Wolong Giant Panda Reserve in China's Sichuan province, the pandas are thriving, and a baby boom is in full swing.
Healthy newborns arrive at the nursery almost weekly, and panda "kindergarten" — where the fuzzy 1-year-olds socialize — is at full capacity.
But, China is guarding its precious national treasures more than ever.
China's local media reported Thursday that the country has discontinued its practice of sending pandas as goodwill gifts abroad. From now on, Beijing will only send pandas to certain foreign zoos on a 10-year loan basis for "breeding and biological research," according to Cao Qingyuan, the State Forestry Administration's spokesperson.
The beloved bears are cash cows for China, which makes up to $1 million a year, per bear, lent out to an American zoo.
The Atlanta Zoo, for example, has spent over $7 million to borrow Lun Lun and Yang Yang since 1999, and the zoo's CEO and board are considering extending their stay. Zoo officials say that the panda pair has increased annual attendance membership sales, helping the previously debt-ridden zoo become profitable again.
Pandas Le Le and Ya Ya helped the Memphis Zoo draw 1 million visitors last year.
Thirty-five years ago, China's soft diplomacy began with ping pong, not pandas. In April 1972, the U.S. and China arranged an exchange of ping pong players during the World Table Tennis Championships.
"Ping pong diplomacy was about creating face to face contact between Americans and Chinese people, and to dispel the false images we had of each other — that we were devils, or ogres, or whatever else our governments made us out to be," said Jan Berris, vice president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.
In 1972, Berris was a program officer for the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, a nonprofit organization which hosted and facilitated the historic Sino-American sports exchange.
"After ping pong diplomacy, China began to give pandas as gifts, because they were one of the few things it could give, which other countries wanted," Berris said.
When China gave its first gift of giant pandas to President Nixon in 1972, the Nixon administration reciprocated with an odd gift of Alaskan musk oxen. One of the baby oxen died almost immediately, and the other contracted a disease, which caused it to lose all of its fur, and expired shortly after. The pair of pandas, on the other hand, became one of the biggest attractions at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Berris had an optimistic interpretation of panda diplomacy's end. "Maybe we've reached the next stage where China doesn't have to use pandas as a diplomatic tool. China has an extraordinarily large web of relationships at all levels and fields — pandas are an extra plus, but not necessary."
Though pandas are no longer given as diplomatic gifts, they still retain their symbolic value.
Last year, when U.S. envoy Robert Zoellick hugged a panda during his visit to China, it was interpreted as a desire for more engagement with Beijing. On the flipside, Taiwan's government refuses to accept bears, in order to show its estrangement from mainland China. One Taiwanese lawmaker said that the pandas were Beijing's version of a Trojan horse, "meant to destroy Taiwan's psychological defenses."
Qingyuan said that China will only offer pandas as gifts to Hong Kong and Taiwan, which China considers its own. "This is an activity of sending pandas between brothers."
Though it's unclear how many more Chinese pandas will make it to American zoos in the future, it's clear that the country won't be using pandas to pander any more.
Stephanie Sy contributed to this story.