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Panda loans haven't always worked that way. In the 1980s and early '90s, some short-term loans from China to U.S. zoos seemed to be more about China's rental fees and zoos' admissions income than conservation. Sexually mature animals were shipped to institutions that couldn't offer breeding opportunities. Some critics even accused the Chinese of capturing wild pandas just to build up their rental stock. The controversy pushed the Fish and Wildlife Service to declare a moratorium on panda loans of any kind until it worked out a new set of giant panda import regulations. "We had to step back," Stansell says, "and find a way to use our permit process as a conservation tool."

In 1998 the FWS declared a bold new policy: If U.S. zoos wanted pandas, they would have to become partners with China in giant panda conservation. China needed the help. Its conservation agencies needed information—basic science about panda diseases, hormones, social skills, and needs for space and privacy. In China's zoos and breeding centers, caretakers needed training to help pandas having trouble with mating, to combat parasites and infections, to bring up babies, and to make sure pandas were getting optimal chow. China's cash-strapped central government needed money to help pay for expanding and improving its network of nature reserves, and for the enforcement essential to transforming a reserve from an outline on a map into a genuine haven for wildlife. Today, to qualify for a panda import permit, a U.S. zoo has to design a research program that benefits wild pandas, and it must also help China pay for its own panda projects.

Starting in the late 1990s, U.S. zoos have committed research firepower and fund-raising clout to long-term scientific loans. China sends captive-bred giant pandas to the United States. Zoo staff here study the smallest details of their pandas' mating activity, food habits, exercise preferences, sleep rhythms, and other traits, and share results with their Chinese counterparts.

By David Wildt's latest count, workshops presented by U.S. and Chinese experts in China have trained nearly 1,300 of that country's conservation professionals. Another hundred-plus have spent time at American zoos, working side by side with U.S. counterparts, then going home to share their new knowledge and skills. Each zoo's average annual investment in panda science and education programs: $614,000.

Every year each zoo also sends China a million dollars for the protection of pandas and their remaining habitat. China uses these funds, for instance, to install communications networks in reserves, create environmental education programs for schools near protected areas, analyze the impact of habitat fragmentation on genetic diversity, and develop plans to restore degraded bamboo forests.

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