for National Geographic News
Giant pandas are a popular zoo attraction in the United States. But the high cost to "rent" the black-and-white bears from China (see map) may force some zoos to close their exhibits.
Today zoos in Atlanta, Georgia; Memphis, Tennessee; San Diego, California; and Washington, D.C., rent pandas for display and research.
These four U.S. institutions must each pay an annual fee of one million U.S. dollars to the Chinese government, which retains ownership rights to the animals.
On top of that, if a cub is born (see photo)as with last summer's birth of Tai Shan at the National Zoo in Washingtonthe zoo is charged an extra one-time "baby tax" of $600,000.
The loan agreements, most spanning ten years, have become a financial headache for the nation's zoos.
"It's tough for a zoological institution like ours, or the other three zoos [with pandas in the U.S.], to sustain that level of spending indefinitely," said Dennis Kelly, chief executive of Zoo Atlanta.
Both Zoo Atlanta and the San Diego Zoo's panda exhibits lose money.
"It really is turning out to be somewhat of a hardship," said Don Lindburg, head of the office of giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo.
Informal talks are now underway with the Chinese government to slash fees on renewal agreements to keep the bears.
In May a delegation that includes representatives from the four U.S. zoos is scheduled to go to China to work, in part, on a new agreement.
Lindburg said there is some sentiment among U.S. zoos that the fee should be cut by as much as 50 percent.
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