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The last pandas in the United States have a timetable to return to China

The last pandas in the United States have a timetable to return to China
The last pandas in the United States have a timetable to return to China


The last American zoo with pandas in its care hopes to say goodbye to the four giant bears this fall.

Zoo Atlanta is preparing to repatriate panda parents Lun Lun and Yang Yang to China with their U.S.-born twins, Ya Lun and Xi Lun, zoo officials announced Friday. There is no specific date for the transfer yet, they said, but it will likely take place between October and December.

One of Zoo Atlanta's four pandas rests in its habitat on December 30, 2023, in Atlanta. Kate Brumback/AP

The four Atlanta pandas are the latest to be in the United States since the National Zoo in Washington returned three pandas to China last November. These pandas flew to China on November 8 and then landed in Chengdu, home of China's National Zoo. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian were on loan for a research and breeding program. In 2020, the couple had a baby named Xiao Qi Ji, who also returned to China. Forklifts had to transport the giant pandas to the airport in trucks where they boarded a special flight with “snacks,” including about 220 pounds of bamboo.

The pandas were first sent to Washington to save the species by breeding them, and since then, pairs have been kept at the zoo.

Giant panda Mei Xiang and her cub Bei Bei(R) play in their enclosure August 24, 2016 at the National Zoo in Washington, DC. Karen Bleier via Getty Images

Other U.S. zoos returned pandas to China as loan agreements expired due to increased diplomatic tensions between the two countries. Besides the Atlanta and Washington DC zoos, the Memphis Zoo and the San Diego Zoo were the only ones in the United States that housed giant pandas. Memphis returned its last surviving panda in April 2023. San Diego returned its pandas in 2019, more than three decades after the first pair arrived in 1987.

Atlanta received Lun Lun and Yang Yang from China in 1999 as part of a 25-year loan deal that will soon expire.

Ya Lun and Xi Lun, born in 2016, are the youngest of seven pandas born at Zoo Atlanta since their parents arrived. Their siblings are already in the care of the Giant Panda Breeding Research Center in Chengdu, China.

America may welcome a new pair of pandas before the bears leave Atlanta. The San Diego Zoo said last month that staff members recently traveled to China to meet pandas Yun Chuan and Xin Bao, who could arrive in California as early as this summer. The San Francisco Zoo also recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the China Wildlife Conservation Association in April to bring pandas to the zoo. In the 1980s, pandas were briefly housed at the zoo, but this agreement marks the first time pandas will reside at the San Francisco Zoo.

Zoo Atlanta officials said in a news release that they should be able to share “significant notice” before their pandas depart. As for whether Atlanta could host future pandas, “no discussions have yet taken place with partners in China,” zoo officials said.

There are just over 1,800 pandas left in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund, and although breeding programs have increased their numbers, panda survival is still considered critically endangered.

Reporting contributed by Caitlin O'Kane.

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