SF Zoo possibly one step closer to receiving Giant Pandas from China

Here's an inside look at what it would take for Giant Pandas from China to return to San Francisco

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Wednesday, February 14, 2024
SF Zoo one step closer to receiving Giant Pandas from China
Here's an inside look at what it would take for Giant Pandas from China to return to San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- It has been nearly 40 years since San Francisco hosted giant pandas at its zoo. We've been reporting on rumblings that they could once again return. For the first time, we're getting an inside look at the proposed plan to bring them back to the Bay Area.

Tanya Peterson, CEO and director of the San Francisco Zoo stands in front of the lion habitat, gesturing how back in 1984 the area, was retrofitted to host Yun Yun and Yang Xin who stayed for three months. Their short visit left quite an impression.

"It was the highest attendance we had in the history of the zoo. Even though they were here for three months, we were over a million visitors!," beams Peterson.

Since then, Peterson, clad in panda socks, has dreamed of hosting Giant Pandas once again, but on a more permanent basis.

"We've been pursuing this relationship for over a decade in particular with the Shanghai Zoo and some of our partners in China."

When San Francisco hosted APEC last November, Chinese President Xi Jinping hinted California could once again see pandas return. Mayor London Breed even made a formal ask on the tarmac.

Then, Peterson got "the call."

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"On Christmas Day, we received news that there were visitors and experts coming from Chengdu. They wanted to get a sense of the zoo, our community, dedication to conservation to medicine, and animal wellness and how we encourage guests to respect animals."

David Towne is the former director of the Giant Panda Conservation Foundation and for decades advised zoos on what to do and not do if they wanted to be loaned a pair of the giant animals.

"It's a combination of financial, political, conservation oriented and legal. All of them need to fall together in order for it to work."

Towne believes our city has an edge over San Diego whose zoo is also in the running.

"The leg up you have is that... you're San Francisco. You have a really strong Asian community, you have a consul general, so you have access and you have purpose in encouraging pandas because of the population which you have."

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Even if San Francisco is gifted the pandas, the cost would significant. Before the pandemic, estimates to convert this space, totaled about $25 million.

"In addition, you should budget 10 years of operating expenses. It can be up to a million dollars a year to keep the giant pandas here with research and their needs."

But to Peterson, it's a price that would pay dividends for our community...and animals too.

"We hope this impacts all of our animals positively, there's a growing awareness of conservation and the excitement forging pandas will spill over to Komodo dragons, orangutans and their conservation stories. There's an instant joy between humans and the giant panda."

Peterson and Towne both estimate, if China determines San Francisco a worthy loaner city, it could still take up to 18 months before we see pandas at the zoo.

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