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Associated Press

The Panda Party is back on as giant pandas will return to Washington's National Zoo by year's end

In this combo image, two-year-old male giant panda Bao Li in his habitat at Shenshuping Base in Wolong, China, May 16, 2024, left, and two-year-old female giant panda Qing Bao in her habitat at Dujiangyan Base in Sichuan, China, May 17, 2024, right. The two new giant pandas are returning to Washington’s National Zoo from China this year. The announcement from the Smithsonian Institution on Wednesday comes about half a year after the zoo sent its three pandas back to China. (Roshan Patel, Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Months after the nation's capital bid an emotional farewell to its giant pandas, the National Zoo is expecting a renewed surge in panda-mania with the announcement that two more of the furry black-and-white icons will be coming to Washington.

The zoo announced Wednesday that a fresh agreement had been struck with the Chinese government, and a pair of adult pandas would be arriving from China by the end of the year. The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute said the incoming pair are Bao Li (pronounced BOW’-lee) and Qing Bao (ching-BOW’).

“We’re thrilled to announce the next chapter of our breeding and conservation partnership begins by welcoming two new bears, including a descendent of our beloved panda family, to Washington, D.C.,” said Brandie Smith, the zoo’s director. “This historic moment is proof positive our collaboration with Chinese colleagues has made an irrefutable impact.”

Giant pandas are prized in Washington and around the nation and the world. The number of pandas in American zoos has dwindled as loan agreements lapsed during diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and China that remain high. Washington's three pandas returned to China last November.

Word of the new exchange agreement spread quickly through the National Zoo grounds Wednesday, with multiple signs announcing “The Pandas Are Coming!” and fresh displays of panda-themed merchandise holding a prominent place in the gift shops.

Sofia Valle, an 8th grader from Bear, Delaware, came with a school group hoping to see pandas and unaware that the zoo is currently panda-free. Instead she and her classmates — all wearing panda-ear headbands — posed for pictures in front of a Giant Panda statue and discussed coming back after the new bears arrive.

“They’re my favorite animal,” Valle said. “They’re so fluffy! And they’re lazy like me.”

Panda fever also means business for the area around the zoo. At Baked By Yael, a bakery across the street from one of the main entrances, panda-themed cake pops and T-shirts never stopped selling, even after the bears had left.

“We are super super excited," said owner Yael Krigman. "Honestly, we never gave up faith. We knew they were going to come back eventually.”

When they arrive, the pandas will spend several weeks in quarantine with limited human contact as zoo staffers work to acclimate them to their new environment.

“This is huge. I can’t wait. It couldn’t have come any sooner,” said Mariel Lally, one of the zoo’s panda keepers. “Pandas are such an incredible species.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping had signaled during a trip in late 2023 that China would be sending new pandas to the United States. He called them “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.”

The zoo accompanied the announcement with a light-hearted video featuring Smith, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III and first lady Jill Biden. The trio in the video are gathered to discuss protocol for a reception to welcome unnamed honored guests. When Biden asks about attire and menu, Smith dryly replies that the impending guests are “strict vegetarians” who are “partial to black and white.”

Last November, giant pandas Tian Tian and Mei Xiang and their cub, Xiao Qi Ji, went back to China, prompting a nationwide outpouring of farewell from millions of U.S. panda fans of all ages. The trio's departure left only one panda family remaining in American zoos, at Zoo Atlanta, and those remain scheduled to return to China later this year.

Zoo Atlanta is making preparations to return panda parents Lun Lun and Yang Yang along with their American-born twins Ya Lun and Xi Lun, zoo officials said earlier this month.

It's possible that America will welcome another new panda pair before the Atlanta bears depart. The San Diego Zoo said last month that staff members recently traveled to China to meet pandas Yun Chuan and Xin Bao, which could arrive in California as soon as this summer. A separate agreement was also announced to send a breeding pair of pandas to San Francisco as well.

Pandas have been a symbol of U.S.-China friendship since Beijing sent a pair to the National Zoo in 1972, ahead of the normalization of bilateral relations. Later, Beijing loaned pandas to other U.S. zoos, with proceeds going back to panda conservation programs.

When U.S-China relations began to sour in recent years, members of the Chinese public started to demand the return of giant pandas. Unproven allegations that U.S. zoos mistreated the pandas, known as China’s “national treasure,” flooded China’s social media.

The National Zoo said the pandas coming to Washington are:

— Bao Li, a 2-year-old male whose name means “treasure” and “energetic.” He was born Aug. 4, 2021, at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Sichuan to father An An and mother Bao Bao. The zoo said Bao Li’s mother was born at the zoo in 2013, and his grandparents Tian Tian and Mei Xiang lived at the zoo from 2000 to 2023. It was Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, along with their cub Xiao Qi Ji, who left the zoo in November.

— Qing Bao, a 2-year-old female whose name means “green” and “treasure.” She was born Sept. 12, 2021.

A research and breeding agreement with the Chinese runs through April 2034 and, like previous ones, says any cubs born at the zoo will move to China by age 4, according to the announcement. The zoo will pay a $1 million annual fee to the China Wildlife Conservation Association to support research and conservation efforts in China.

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AP writer Ashraf Khalil contributed to this article.

Two-year-old male giant panda Bao Li in his habitat at Shenshuping Base in Wolong, China, May 16, 2024. Two new giant pandas are returning to Washington’s National Zoo from China this year. The announcement from the Smithsonian Institution on Wednesday comes about half a year after the zoo sent its three pandas back to China. (Roshan Patel, Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute via AP)
Two-year-old female giant panda Qing Bao in her habitat at Dujiangyan Base in Sichuan, China, May 17, 2024. Two new giant pandas are returning to Washington’s National Zoo from China this year. The announcement from the Smithsonian Institution on Wednesday comes about half a year after the zoo sent its three pandas back to China. (Roshan Patel, Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute via AP)
FILE - Giant pandas eat bamboo at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, May 4, 2022, in Washington. Two giant pandas are coming to Washington’s National Zoo from China by the end of the year. The zoo made the announcement Wednesday, about half a year after it sent its three pandas back to China. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
FILE - Giant panda Xiao Qi Ji eats bamboo in his enclosure at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, Sept. 28, 2023. Two giant pandas are coming to Washington’s National Zoo from China by the end of the year. The zoo made the announcement Wednesday, about half a year after it sent its three pandas back to China. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)
FILE - Panda cub Bao Bao hangs from a tree in her habitat at the National Zoo in Washington on her first birthday, Aug. 23, 2014. Two giant pandas are coming to Washington’s National Zoo from China by the end of the year. The zoo made the announcement Wednesday, about half a year after it sent its three pandas back to China. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 23, 2015 file photo, The Smithsonian National Zoo's Giant Panda Mei Ziang, sleeps in the indoor habitat at the zoo in Washington. Two giant pandas are coming to Washington’s National Zoo from China by the end of the year. The zoo made the announcement Wednesday, about half a year after it sent its three pandas back to China. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
FILE - Giant panda Tian Tian eats bamboo in his enclosure at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, Sept. 28, 2023. Two giant pandas are coming to Washington’s National Zoo from China by the end of the year. The zoo made the announcement Wednesday, about half a year after it sent its three pandas back to China. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)
FILE - Bao Bao, the beloved 3-year-old panda at the National Zoo in Washington, enjoys a final morning in her bamboo-filled habitat before her one-way flight to China to join a panda breeding program, Feb. 21, 2017. Two giant pandas are coming to Washington’s National Zoo from China by the end of the year. The zoo made the announcement Wednesday, about half a year after it sent its three pandas back to China. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
FILE - Giant panda Xiao Qi Ji plays at his enclosure at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, Sept. 28, 2023. Two giant pandas are coming to Washington’s National Zoo from China by the end of the year. The zoo made the announcement Wednesday, about half a year after it sent its three pandas back to China. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)
FILE- Panda cub Bao Bao, right, and her mother Mei Xiang are seen in their habitat at the National Zoo in Washington, Aug. 23, 2014.Two giant pandas are coming to Washington’s National Zoo from China by the end of the year. The zoo made the announcement Wednesday, about half a year after it sent its three pandas back to China. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)