WASHINGTON — The National Zoo announced a $4.5 million gift Monday to fund its giant panda reproduction program for five more years.
Philanthropist David M. Rubenstein visited the pandas with China's ambassador to the United States to announce the gift. Rubenstein is a co-founder and managing director of the Washington-based private equity firm The Carlyle Group. He is also on the board of regents at the Smithsonian Institution, which includes the zoo.
"There are probably 10 million species on the face of the earth, and I doubt that any one of those species is more popular and more beloved than the giant panda," Rubenstein said at a news conference by the zoo's giant panda yard. He said the money is a holiday gift to the people of Washington and to the country because pandas make people happy.
"Hopefully this will result in more pandas being born here," he said.
The zoo said it will name the giant panda habitat after Rubenstein. The gift will also fund fellowships for biologists in the United States and China to work to save pandas, which are an endangered species.
With the funding commitment, the zoo can proceed with a five-year plan established with Chinese wildlife officials to try to produce another cub after years of trouble. Washington's pandas have produced only one cub, Tai Shan, who was sent to China to begin breeding.
The zoo said male panda Tian Tian has been showing early signs of breeding behavior. But the zoo is securing frozen semen from a now-dead panda at the San Diego zoo to use as a backup next year. The zoo is also making changes to the panda habitat, such as eliminating all artificial light at night and closing the indoor panda exhibit to the public by 4:30 p.m. each day to encourage natural breeding cycles that have come abnormally early for female panda Mei Xiang in years past.
David Wildt, a head reproductive scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, said chances of Mei Xiang having another cub may be slim because there have been five years of failed attempts to breed the panda couple. He said Chinese scientists wanted to try one more time before switching out one or both of the Washington pandas for new animals from China.
In January, the Smithsonian signed a new five-year, $2.5 million agreement with China to keep the popular pandas in Washington. Pandas date back nearly 40 years at the zoo. An earlier panda pair arrived in 1972 as a gift from China after President Richard Nixon's historic visit.
The donation is unusual for Rubenstein, who has made large gifts to cultural institutions including museums and the Kennedy Center. A spokesman said Rubenstein travels often to China for business investments in industries ranging from fishing and forestry to insurance. Rubenstein also serves on the board of Tsinghua University in China.
Chinese Ambassador Zhang Yesui visited the zoo Monday and thanked Rubenstein for helping to continue research on panda conservation. He said he greeted Mei Xiang and Tian Tian as well.
"I'm very happy to see they're in good shape and they were enjoying their breakfast," he said. "I actually sent my Christmas and New Year's greetings to them, and I also told them that their son Tai Shan is doing very well in Sichuan, China."
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company