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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The last giant pandas in the U.S. are leaving, but China will send more

By Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff Washington Post

The Atlanta zoo will return its four pandas to China late this year, the facility announced Friday, in the latest chapter of a program often labeled “panda diplomacy.”

The parents and their twins have been the only giant pandas in the United States since November, when the National Zoo in Washington returned three of the bears to China in a move that some saw as an ominous sign of deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Chinese governments. China owns and leases all giant pandas in U.S. zoos.

Lun Lun, 26, and Yang Yang, 26, have been in Atlanta since 1999, when they came as part of a 25-year loan agreement. They’ve had seven children since then, including twins Ya Lun and Xi Lun, 7, the last of the offspring still in the country.

The zoo announced in November that the quartet would be leaving this year but had not indicated when that might be. It said this week that they would return in the fourth quarter.

Their exact departure date is not clear, nor how they will make the trip. Zoo Atlanta did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday, and the Friday news release said the zoo has applied for the pandas’ international travel permit.

“The process for sending giant pandas to China is extensive and requires months of planning,” the zoo said in a statement.

Last year’s farewell to three bears in D.C. could offer some clues.

The November morning when they left began with staffers loading stacks of bamboo onto three large FedEx trucks as the sun rose. That was to make sure the pandas could snack during their travels.

The pandas were loaded into large shipping crates, placed onto trucks by a forklift and driven to nearby Dulles International Airport.

They were then packed onto a FedEx cargo jet with two zookeepers for a 19-hour, 9,000-mile journey to Chengdu, China, The Washington Post reported at the time.

Relatives of the Atlanta pandas have made a similar journey to China’s Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where they reside and have had children themselves. The last ones to make the journey were another set of twins, Mei Lun and Mei Huan, who departed for China in 2016 after they turned 3 years old.

Zoo Atlanta said it had not discussed the future of the giant panda program with partners in China. It noted that it has contributed more than $17 million to support the conservation of wild giant pandas and plans a summer of celebrating the pandas, starting June 1.

The United States, though, could welcome a pair of new pandas before the four depart Atlanta. San Diego Zoo staffers visited China this year to prepare for the arrivals of Yun Chuan and Xin Bao as early as this summer, the Associated Press reported. Pandas had lived there and in Memphis, Tennessee, before returning to China as their agreements expired in recent years.

When Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited San Francisco in November, he suggested Beijing would send new pandas, signaling that China would continue its panda diplomacy.

In February, National Zoo officials indicated that they were in discussions to bring back giant pandas to D.C., though it is not clear when that could happen.

If the San Diego Zoo doesn’t receive those bears before the Atlanta-based family leaves, the United States will be without giant pandas for the first time in more than 50 years.

The black and white animals have been a cornerstone of U.S.-China relations since they arrived in 1972, a move sparked by a banquet conversation between first lady Pat Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai, China’s second-in-command to Chairman Mao Zedong. The first lady and President Richard M. Nixon were in Beijing for a historic Cold War visit to communist China.

Fewer than 1,900 giant pandas remain in the wild in China, according to Zoo Atlanta, with the majority in nature reserves.

While many in the area may be sad to see the bears leave, the zoo said it was grateful to have looked after them for more than two decades.

“We have merely been fortunate enough to be their stewards and introduce so many people here in the U.S. to this species,” it said on its website.


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Video: For most of the last 51 years, Washington, D.C. has had a love affair with its giant pandas. Now, all the pandas are leaving the Smithsonian’s National Zoo by Nov. 15, going to China.© 2024 , The Washington Post

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