What to Know
- San Diego researchers were the first to participate in the new model of conservation.
- The giant pandas born at the San Diego Zoo have helped to produce 22 additional giant pandas in China.
- The giant panda is still on the endangered species list but is less threatened than when the program began.
After 23 years away from her home country, San Diego, California’s, beloved former resident– giant panda Bai Yun, and her son, Xiao Liwu – are now safely back in China.
The China Giant Panda Conservation Research Center confirmed Friday that the beloved furry panda pair had landed in China a day earlier, at 7:30 a.m. A staff of veterinarians awaited at the airport to check on the duo’s health as they arrived.
“They confirmed that there is no serious stress reaction and both pandas were doing well,” the Conservation Research Center said in a press release.
Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu were then transported by vehicle to the Qingjiangshan base of Dujiangyan, the site of the China Giant Panda Conservation Research Center.
After being unloaded from the vehicle and their cages, the pandas were guided into isolation quarantine areas, per protocol, the center said.
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Then, came a homecoming party.
Panda Portraits: A Look Back at San Diego's Beloved Bears
A special welcome ceremony was held for the pandas, which kicked off with singing and dancing by children of Dujiangyan.
Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu settled into their new habitat in their homeland.
The giant pandas left the San Diego Zoo a few weeks ago after the zoo’s successful giant panda conservation program with China came to an end. That end meant Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu, the final two Giant Pandas left at the San Diego Zoo, would have to be repatriated to China.
The San Diego Zoo was one of only a few zoos in the United States where giant pandas could be seen.
Although the program is over, San Diego Zoo officials said last month the facility would now begin working on "a new era of panda conservation," speaking with their colleagues in China to determine what those future plans may entail and if, someday, the pandas might return to San Diego.
In April, Chinese Ambassador Zhang Ping of the People’s Republic of China Los Angeles Consulate toured the panda habitat at the San Diego Zoo. He told NBC 7 that, on every level, the agreement between China and the San Diego Zoo has been a model of success.
"They've done a very good job in panda research and conservation, so I think this is a very good thing for continuation of the program in the future," Zhang told NBC 7.
The China Giant Conservation Research Center echoed this on Friday.
"Panda research and breeding, public education, and humanities exchanges have achieved fruitful results,” the center’s press release read. “With the return of the giant pandas, the Chinese Giant Panda Conservation Research Center has increased its population of giant pandas to 17 in the world, forming the largest in the world.”
San Diego Zoo Global and China have been collaborating on panda research and conservation of the species since 1996, when the species was threated with extinction.
Since the conservation agreement began between the San Diego Zoo and China, six cubs have returned to the China Giant Panda Conservation Research Center.
The San Diego Zoo's work with Bai Yun and her cubs has helped to boost the wild population of pandas in China to more than 2,000, according to the zoo.
In 2016, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species changed pandas from endangered to vulnerable.
In October 2018, Bai Yun's longtime mate, Gao Gao, was returned to the Chinese Center for Research and Conservation for the Giant Panda. The father of five cubs born at the San Diego Zoo, Gao Gao had been living at the zoo for 15 years as part of the long-term loan agreement with the People’s Republic of China.
That signaled the beginning of major moves for San Diego's panda family. The zoo said the departure of Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu was not unexpected, as the zoo's long-term conservation agreement with China was due to end.
"Although we are sad to see these pandas go, we have great hopes for the future," Shawn Dixon, chief operating officer for San Diego Zoo Global, said to the media in March.