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Celebrity Panda To Return To Thailand, For $1 Million A Year

The citizens of Thailand are breathing a sigh of relief, after a breakthrough moment in panda relations was reached with China Friday. After much negotiation, Lin Ping, a female giant panda who became a reality TV star after being born in Thailand's Chiang Mai Zoo, will be allowed to stay in Thailand for 15 years.

The pact comes just weeks before Lin Ping was to travel to China; under the terms of the deal that brought her parents to Thailand, zoo officials were obligated to send Lin Ping to China by her fourth birthday, on May 27.

The revised deal will allow Lin Ping to remain in Thailand until October, when she'll travel to China and meet prospective mates.

"Once she has the right husband, China will send Lin Ping and her mate back to Thailand," The Bangkok Post reports. "Chinese authorities will try their best to ensure that she will be back in Thailand within one year."

Under the revised contract, Thai officials will pay $1 million for every year Lin Ping lives in Thailand, according to Thai newspaper The Nation. Any other pandas loaned to Thai zoos would incur the same fee.

As CNN reported back in 2009, Lin Ping "raked in 10 million baht for the zoo" in the first four months of her life. At today's exchange rates, that would be more than $330,000.

The arrangement was brokered in talks that included a 2012 exchange in which "Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra asked then-Chinese premier Wen Jiabao to consider extending the panda's loan contract," the AP says.

"Thanks to the close ties between the two countries and discussions between the leaders, China has agreed to let Lin Ping grow up in Thailand," Foreign Minister Surapong Towichukchaikul said, according to The Nation.

As is the case with most celebrities in the digital era, Lin Ping's stardom has had its rough spots. She lost her TV slot last year, prompting Chiang Mai City News to call her "the unemployed actress." The paper said her fans were hoping for the show's return.

"Fans said that watching the panda on TV made them feel relaxed," the City News reported.

As you might expect, the return of a giant panda born abroad to the country where they were born is rare.

"Currently, giant pandas may be taken out of China only through such collaborative research agreements, which state that both the parents and any offspring remain under the ownership of China," as law librarian Kelly Buchanan wrote last year at the Library of Congress. "China used to send giant pandas overseas as diplomatic gifts (a practice sometimes referred to as 'panda diplomacy.'"

In 2010, Tai Shan, a panda who became a beloved webcam star after being born in Washington's National Zoo, was sent to China as part of the panda-lending agreement.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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