San Diego pandas heading home

Visitors snap photos of Xiao Liwu, as the 6-year-old panda curls up for a nap at the San Diego Zoo on Friday. Liu Yinmeng / China Daily

Favorite attractions are leaving for China as zoo's loan agreement with Beijing expires

Garrett Sheetz has always seen pandas in picture books, but never in real life, so he was more than thrilled when his parents drove six hours from their San Jose house to the San Diego Zoo to see the chubby bears up close.

"I like best how I get to see them in real life," the 7-year-old told China Daily on Friday as he and his family sat outside a photo booth at the Panda Canyon in the zoo, waiting patiently for staff to print photos of them and the pandas.

But the boy's first encounter with the cuddly creatures turned out to be bittersweet. This spring, the zoo's two last remaining pandas, 27-year-old Bai Yun and her 6-yearold son, Xiao Liwu, which means little present in Chinese, are heading back to their homeland of China as the zoo's landmark conservation loan agreement with Beijing comes to an end.

Decades ago, the zoo joined the China Wildlife Conservation Association, the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and others in an effort to prevent pandas from going extinct.

The collaboration resulted in Bai Yun and her partner Shi Shi arriving by jet in San Diego from China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Panda's Wolong base in 1996. Since then, the beloved bears, including Gao Gao, Bai Yun's second mate, and Bai Yun's cubs, have contributed significantly to scientists' study of panda biology and behavior.

Kathy Hawk, senior mammal keeper at the San Diego Zoo, who has been with the animals since they first arrived from China, said pandas historically have been one of the world's most beloved animals and people tend to identify with them.

"We have thousands and thousands of people coming to the zoo to see our pandas," she said.

"Let's hope through that learning and the conservation messages that we send ... they would like to know what they can do to help save the species."

When the pandas first arrived in San Diego, the species was on the verge of extinction, the zoo said. Decades of conservation efforts by the team of scientists have helped bring the wild panda population in China to nearly 2,000.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the latest count in 2014 found that there were 1,864 pandas living in the wild. Although the number is still low, it is considered a great improvement, the organization said, because the animals numbered about 1,000 in the late 1970s.

The policies put in place by the Chinese government have resulted in the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species to "downlist" the giant panda's status from "endangered" to "vulnerable".

Hawk said that by working together, US and Chinese researchers were able to learn more about the giant panda's biology and behavior. "What we've learned from them will help them in the wild," she said.

It is not clear at this point when pandas will live in the zoo again, but the staff said they are working with their Chinese colleagues to determine what is next.

"I'd like to think that we are just going to be on a hiatus for a while," said Hawk, "but I don't think our work is going to stop just because we don't have pandas at our institution."

Her eyes welled up a bit as she continued.

"Currently, our director and our executive team are in discussions with the Chinese right now, working out a future research permit at this time," she said.

Panda lovers have until April 27 to view them at the zoo and many have traveled from all over the state for a last look at the black-and-white bamboo-eaters.

San Diego resident Erick Andino and Gem Riegg said the pandas reminded them of their children because they were one of their favorite attractions at the zoo when they were growing up.

"We wanted to come see them for one more time," said Riegg.

They said they first saw the pandas when they arrived in San Diego more than 20 years ago.

"They have been a part of the community for a long, long time, but it is good that they are going home," Andino said.

Courtney Cowen, a dance instructor who was at the zoo with her family on Friday, said it was sad to see the pandas leave.

Bai Yun - Chinese for white cloud - had one cub with Shi Shi and five cubs with Gao Gao. Bai Yun and Gao Gao, who was sent back to China in 2018, are considered a "power couple" who have contributed significantly to the scientists' efforts.

Pandas are the property of China, even those born on US soil. All six of Bai Yun's cubs were born in the US. The other five have all returned to China.

People crowded around the panda enclosure on April 12 and snapped photos of Xiao Liwu, who was curled up in a fuzzy ball chomping on a stalk of bamboo.

Not far from the panda's enclosure was a panda friendship wall as part of the zoo's three-week farewell celebration of the pandas. Even though the wall had been up for less than a week, it was almost completely filled with messages of well wishes to Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu.

Besides the San Diego Zoo, there are only three other places in the US with pandas: the National Zoo in Washington, Zoo Atlanta in Georgia and the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee.

In honor of the partnership and deep friendship between China and San Diego, the zoo held a ceremony on April 6, which was attended by Chinese Consul General in Los Angeles Zhang Ping.

"I think it's a very successful program, and it helps the cause of giant panda conservation in China, and helps the population to grow. So this is very significant," Zhang said.

"Giant pandas are popular here, many people love them and they have become a symbol of China, and they become a special envoy to bring our two peoples together, so I think this is also wonderful as far as our bilateral relations are concerned," he said.

"The San Diego Zoo was honored to be chosen by conservationists in China to work with them to develop a new model for species conservation," said Douglas G. Myers, president of San Diego Zoo Global.

"The panda program we began together demonstrates how powerful these collaborative efforts can be," Myers said. "We are extremely grateful to China for sharing the pandas with us and offering us the chance to serve this species in a leadership role."