Meet Mexico's 'forgotten panda.' She's the last of her kind.

Her name is Xin Xin, and she's one of only three pandas in the world not owned by China. But these may be the final day's of Mexico's half-century panda love affair.

By Nina Strochlic
photographs by Alejandro Cegarra
Published 30 Mar 2023, 09:29 BST
Mexico's last giant panda, Xin Xin, lounges in her habitat at the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico ...
Mexico's last giant panda, Xin Xin, lounges in her habitat at the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City. Xin Xin is the granddaughter of two pandas given to Mexico as a gift in 1975. Today, she's the only panda in Latin America and among the last in the world that doesn't belong to China. The lineage of Mexican pandas ends with Xin Xin, who never reproduced.
Photograph by Alejandro Cegarra, National Geographic

In 2018, one year after moving to Mexico City from his native Venezuela, photographer Alejandro Cegarra was visiting the Chapultepec Zoo. As he strolled through the vast 42-acre expanse of parks and wildlife exhibits, he was shocked to discover a lush panda enclosure. A panda in Mexico City?

The encounter led him down a rabbit hole to 1970s Mexico, when the country had effectively recognised China’s authority over Taiwan at the United Nations. Soon, other Latin American countries followed suit, and China gifted two giant pandas, Pe Pe and Ying Ying, to the Mexican zoo in 1975. Their arrival sparked a panda fever: pop songs, cartoons, and commemorative coins celebrating the pandas embedded into the country’s cultural fabric.

Today, Xin Xin, the granddaughter of the two gifted pandas, is the last of her kind in Latin America and one of only three in the world not owned by China. At 33 years old, she’s five years from matching the record lifespan of a panda in captivity. But as of now, there’s no plan to replace her. These may be the final days of Mexico’s half-century panda love affair.

“This is a forgotten panda,” says Cegarra. While Mexico City residents still visit the zoo’s biggest star, the past decades have transformed the city into a hub of attractions and entertainment: major concerts, formula one car races—even the World Cup will be played there in 2026. Amid this abundance of distractions, Xin Xin has faded to the background.

A woman and her child gaze through the glass separating visitors from the panda enclosure as Xin Xin practices her favorite activity: snacking on bamboo. Panda's eat up to 15 percent of their bodyweight in bamboo every day.
Photograph by Alejandro Cegarra, National Geographic
A family tree of Mexico's pandas dates back to 1974, when Pe Pe and Ying Ying were born. China gifted the pair to Mexico a year later. When their daughter Shuan Shuan died at 35 years old in 2022, Xin Xin became the zoo's last panda.
Photograph by Alejandro Cegarra, National Geographic
Matteo Milonas, an eight-year-old visitor to the Chapultepec Zoo, poses with a stuffed panda and lion. In the 1970s, a gift from China sparked panda-mania in Mexico.
Photograph by Alejandro Cegarra, National Geographic

Starting in the late 1950s, China gifted giant pandas to countries as a sign of friendship and diplomatic alliance. China has been using pandas in international relations possibly as far back as the seventh century, when Empress Wu Zetian sent two bears, likely pandas, to Japan. That tradition ended in 1984, when China changed its protocols and began renting the pandas on 10-year leases. Today, zoos pay fees of up to $1 million (£810,000) a year per panda pair, and any foreign-born offspring are considered Chinese property and must be returned.

Breeding pandas is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. Very few have been born in captivity outside China. Veterinarians at the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City were the first to successfully do so, in August 1980. The baby was named Xeng-Li, meaning “success.” At the time, there were an estimated 250 pandas in the wild and 50 in captivity. Today, there are approximately 500 in zoos and reserves, and around 1,800 in the wild. In the past 40 years, eight giant pandas were born in Mexico, and five lived to adulthood.

Elías García Ramírez pushes a wheelbarrow of tools for cleaning Xin Xin’s habitat. The caretaker has been working with the zoo's giant pandas for 20 years.
Photograph by Alejandro Cegarra, National Geographic
Giant Panda Xin Xin stretches a paw through the fence for a routine check
Photograph by Alejandro Cegarra, National Geographic
Panda caretaker Elias Garcia Ramirez checks Xin Xin’s health using a routine where he can see if Xin Xin have unusual movements or behaviors
Photograph by Alejandro Cegarra, National Geographic
Reaching through the bars of her enclosure, García Ramírez brushes Xin Xin.
Photograph by Alejandro Cegarra, National Geographic

The pandas’ placement across the globe traces decades of Chinese political interests. In 2008, two giant pandas were gifted to Taiwan in a rare moment of warming relations. Like in Mexico, the offspring of those pandas are not the property of the Chinese government, though Taiwan’s independence is contested by China. To critics, China’s strategy of “panda diplomacy”—gifting and loaning the bears to friendly countries—is a tactic to soften the superpower’s global image. To supporters, the exchanges are hailed as a model of international cooperation that benefits a vulnerable species.

“A geopolitical relationship between two countries links with a lonely panda in Mexico City that no one remembers,” says Cegarra. “It’s so unique.”

A commemorative medal issued on the fifth birthday of the giant panda Tohui, whose parents were gifted from China to Mexico. Tohui was born on July 21, 1981 and was the first panda outside of China to be born in captivity and survive beyond infancy. She lived to be 12 years old and is the mother of Xin Xin.
Photograph by Alejandro Cegarra, National Geographic

At the Chapultepec Zoo, it took Cegarra more than 20 visits over six months to complete a photography project on Xin Xin—the last of Mexico’s 11 pandas. Pandas sleep up to 12 hours a day and spend much of the rest sedentary, snacking on bamboo and lounging. In the meantime, he got to know Xin Xin’s posse: the veterinarian, Myriam Noguera, who has spent the past decade tending to her and other zoo animals. And the panda’s caregiver, Elías García Ramírez, who has spent nearly every day of the past 20 years cleaning her habitat, preparing her bamboo, and ensuring her safety. Once, he looked after three pandas. Now he watches only Xin Xin.

Mariano Torres, a government employee, is dressed as public health mascot "Pandemio" as he parades through Mexico City for a community event. Pandemio became famous for encouraging the public to get vaccinated against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photograph by Alejandro Cegarra, National Geographic
A zoo worker enters Xin Xin's habitat holding a panda piñata as part of an enrichment program to keep Xin Xin mentally active.
Photograph by Alejandro Cegarra, National Geographic
A 1994 entry ticket for the Chapultepec Zoo features an illustration of Tohui.
Photograph by Alejandro Cegarra, National Geographic
Commuters hustle past a mural of a giant panda inside the Mexico City metro system. At one time, pandas were so popular they appeared in pop music, television programs, and memorabilia.
Photograph by Alejandro Cegarra, National Geographic
In the past 47 years, Mexico has hosted 11 giant pandas. Now only Xin Xin remains and it's considered unlikely that Mexico will acquire another panda from China.
Photograph by Alejandro Cegarra, National Geographic

Photographer Alejandro Cegarra was born in Caracas, Venezuela, and is based in Mexico City. Follow him on Instagram @alecegarra.


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