Mei Xiang, 13, is the National Zoo's female panda. They are attempting to mate her and her partner Tian Tian, who have only had one cub in the past 10 years.
Credit: Tim Sloan

Washington got pandas for the holiday season this year. 

The National Zoo announced on Monday that philanthropist David M. Rubenstein has donated $4.5 million towards their giant panda reproduction efforts, The Washington Post reported

Rubenstein, founder of global asset management firm the Carlyle Group, has pledged five yearly installments of $900,000 to help the zoo continue its attempts to mate its two popular pandas, 13-year-old Mei Xiang, a female, and 14-year-old Tian Tian, a male. The funds will also support panda research both in the United States and in China, the Post reported. 

“It’s something that my family wanted to do for Washington," Rubenstein told the Post. “When I heard about it, I thought, ‘We have been residents of Washington for a long time. We took our children to the zoo when they were younger. I’m a Smithsonian regent.’ And I thought it would be a nice holiday gift for the zoo and people in Washington.”

The Smithsonian's board of regents operates the zoo, and in addition to his membership there, Mr. Rubenstein chairs Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He has also donated millions of dollars to Harvard, Duke and John Hopkins universities, the Post reported. He has urged the United States to make it easier for China to invest in the US, and supports closer economic efforts between the two countries, according to the Post.

The giant pandas are on loan from China, which owns and leases the pandas in all US zoos. Rubenstein's donation helped lower the cost of leasing the pandas from $1 million to about $500,000 a year. The pandas' stay was extended for another five years in January, but the zoo was having difficulty finding corporate sponsorship for their panda program in these difficult economic times. 

“Around the world David is well known as an astute businessman, a great community leader, and a great, generous donor,” David W. Kelly, director of the National Zoo, said at a press conference announcing the donation. “Today, David, we’re going to add a new title to your resume: panda enthusiast.”

Now that the Zoo has a secure source of funding, it faces the equally difficult task of trying to breed a panda cub. When the zoo leased the pandas in 2000, there were hopes that the pair would have many cubs, but The National Zoo's beloved panda couple has so far only produced Tai Shan, who was born in 2005 after being conceived through artificial insemination. The cub was moved to a breeding program in China in 2010. 

David Wildt, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, said that Mei Xiang may not be able to have another cub, because there have already been so many failed attempts to breed the panda couple, the Associated Press reported. He said Chinese wildlife officials wanted to try one more time before switching out one or both of the Washington pandas for new animals from China.

Mei Xiang, who has gone into heat in winter the past two years, may be doing so again, the Post reported. Zoo officials said they have seen Tian Tian “power walking” recently, another sign that Mei Xiang is ready to mate. If so, the two pandas will be allowed to try to mate naturally, something they have been unable to do successfully in the past. 

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