By Brett Zongker Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The National Zoo announced a $4.5 million gift Monday to fund its giant panda reproduction program for five more years.
The zoo announced the donation from philanthropist David M. Rubenstein, a co-founder and managing director of the private equity firm Carlyle Group in Washington. Rubenstein is also on the board of regents at the Smithsonian, which operates 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.
The gift will allow the zoo to proceed with a five-year plan established with the Chinese wildlife officials to try to produce another cub, officials said.
The zoo says male panda Tian Tian has been showing signs of breeding behavior. But the zoo is also securing frozen semen from a now deceased 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.
David Wildt, a senior 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 wildlife officials wanted to try one more time before switching out one or both of the Washington pandas for new animals from China.
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.
In January, the Smithsonian signed a new five-year, $2.5 million agreement with China to keep the popular pandas in Washington.