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

Estimated read time 4 min read

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 recognized 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.

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 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.

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.”

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.

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