Pandas, zoo need $500K

Contract with China expires at end of year.Public donations sought to meet $2.5 million cost to keep animals here.

Atlantans who love having pandas in their backyard will need to come up with some money to keep them here, Zoo Atlanta CEO Dennis Kelly said at a news conference Wednesday.

The zoo plans to raise $500,000 through public donations to reach a $2.5 million price tag for keeping the pandas for five more years.

The money would pay for conservation programs in China. The zoo's 10-year contract with China to keep the pandas, at a cost of about $1 million a year, expires at the end of this year.

Kelly said the zoo is on the verge of negotiating a new five-year deal at about half the cost per year of the old arrangement. The zoo would keep the adult pandas, daddy Yang Yang and mother Lun Lun and baby Xi Lan, but adolescent female Mei Lan would return to China.

The zoo is seeking donations at a dedicated Web site, www.givesotheystay.org/

"Some donors have stepped up already," including corporate donors, pledging about $2 million, Kelly said. Kelly will travel to China this fall to meet with conservation officials, and hopes to have raised the money by then.

The arrangement with China hasn't been formalized, he added, but expected that it would be. "The San Diego Zoo just negotiated a similar deal," he said.

If the fund-raising program is successful, it wouldn't be the first time that panda lovers have reached into their pocketbooks. When the zoo briefly discontinued its popular "panda-cam" in January, a panda fan in Burke, Va., donated $10,000 to keep the pandas online.