SAN DIEGO — Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt notified the world-renowned San Diego Zoo on Thursday that it probably will not be allowed to import two endangered giant pandas from China.
But zoo officials say they still hope to persuade Babbitt that the zoo is trying to save pandas from extinction.
In his letter, the interior secretary indicated that the zoo's plans to bring the pandas here this summer do not meet endangered species protection standards, which approve capture and export only when it will "result in enhanced protection for the species."
Babbitt wrote that allowing the import of the pandas, for which the San Diego Zoo is paying $3 million toward the Chinese government's panda preservation efforts, would create irresistible pressure to capture and export more of the rare animals.
The plan to bring the pandas to San Diego, Babbitt wrote, "places the zoo at risk of violating some of the principles for which it is so widely recognized." He said he believes it could lead to further panda depopulation.
But zoo spokesman Jeff Jouett said Babbitt's letter to Lee Monroe, president of the zoo's board of directors, appears to indicate that Babbitt is aware of neither the zoo's pioneering work in preserving endangered species nor its agreement with the Chinese.
Babbitt wrote that the government "has not received sufficient evidence that the capture and export of wild pandas to the San Diego Zoo will lead to greater protection measures at home."
But Jouett noted that the two pandas scheduled to arrive in San Diego have been in captivity in China for more than a year after being rescued by veterinarians who found them near death. "The Chinese are not out capturing pandas to ship to the San Diego Zoo," he said.
Babbitt's letter also warned the zoo against trying to import pandas without U.S. government approval, which Jouett said the zoo would never consider.
The zoo's effort to import the pandas for three years is pending before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where it has drawn opposition from the World Wildlife Fund.
Only 800 to 1,000 giant pandas exist. Efforts to breed them in captivity have achieved worldwide attention but limited success.
Zoo scientists have made trips to China to observe pandas in captivity and in the wild. By collecting the urine of female pandas and studying the animals' behavior, the San Diego scientists believe they may have developed new insight into the panda's reproductive cycle.
Jouett said that Chinese zoos, using the methods perfected by San Diego endocrinologists, had their best year ever last year, with 11 pandas born in captivity.
The San Diego Zoo had agreed to pay $3 million to the Chinese to aid efforts to preserve pandas. If a panda is born in San Diego, another $600,000 would be paid.
"We'd buy his ticket if he'd come out tomorrow," Jouett said of Babbitt. "We need to talk."
The National Zoo in Washington, the only zoo in the United States to host giant pandas, has been unable to breed them; all the pandas have been either stillborn or died in infancy.
The pending arrival of the giant pandas has been widely promoted by the San Diego Zoo. It has already spent nearly $1 million on an enclosure for the pandas, named Shi Shi and Shun Shun, along with a souvenir and snack center. The investment was expected to be recouped by increased attendance and the sale of souvenirs.
When the San Diego Zoo hosted two pandas for six months in 1987-88, the zoo had a record 2 million visitors.