By Ken Stone and Chris Stone
San Diego and Chinese officials Saturday proclaimed mission accomplished on saving the giant pandas from extinction as the zoo began a long goodbye to its marquee attractions.
But as far as the public’s key question — will the adorable black-and-white creatures ever return? — that’s open to negotiation between the countries down the line.
However, the zoo’s optimism was expressed by leaving the light on — vowing to keep the panda enclosure vacant.
“It will be up to the zoo and the relevant institutions in China to discuss the next step to see in what form this program will continue,” said Zhang Ping, Los Angeles consul general of the People’s Republic of China. “Here in the San Diego Zoo, they have done a very good job in panda research and conservation, so I think this is a very good thing for the continuation of the program in the future.”
Meanwhile, the next challenge is reintroducing “managed care” pandas into the China wild.
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Christine Simmons, a zoo spokeswoman, said: “There have been tremendous strides in learning about reproduction and … maternal care. And a lot of that is going to apply to the wild as we move forward for reintroductions as well.”
Speaking of prolific mother Bai Yun and her sixth cub — 6-year-old son Xiao Liwu — San Diego Zoo Global’s Shawn Dixon said: “Although we are sad to see these pandas go, we have great hopes for the future.”
Chief operating officer Dixon said in a statement: “Working with our colleagues in China, San Diego Zoo Global is ready to make a commitment for the next stage of our panda program.”
The zoo unveiled a Giant Panda Friendship Wall across from the Panda Store where visitors can buy $3 commemorative bells to express their love and best wishes for the pandas through April 27.
“When giant pandas first came to us in 1996,” Simmons said, “there were many experts who thought giant pandas would go extinct because there was not a sustainable population under human care. They were dying in the wild, and we didn’t know why.”
Working together with Chinese colleagues, she said, “we have been able to solve most of those problems.”
Zhang told about 30 guests and media members Saturday morning he understood that many zoo-goers got tremendous joy from such “adorable, amazing creatures.”
“It is difficult to say goodbye,” Zhang said. “For Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu, they also have a fond memory of their happy life here.”But in the interest of their species’ development, he said, “it is time for them to go back to join their bigger family and their peers. We wish them a safe and pleasant journey back home.”
Zhang expressed “profound appreciation” to the zoo for doing a “magnificent job in taking good care of Bai Yun and her family.”
“What you have done in the past 23 years [was] helping get the species out of endangered situation, contributing greatly to the cause of giant panda conservation,” he said.
San Diego Zoo staff will accompany the panda pair home, said Gaylene Thomas, animal care supervisor.
“We’ve been working with both of them in their actual transfer crates,” Thomas said. “And they do great in there. They’re eating in there. They’re relaxing in there.”
Zoo staff also introduced the pandas to some of the machinery they’ll be exposed to while in terminals and in transport.
“They’re doing great with it,” she said.
Zoo president and CEO Douglas Myers agreed with others about how key the 25-year collaboration has been.
“Working together, working with our Chinese colleagues, we saved the giant pandas” from near extinction, he said. (The wild population of giant pandas in China has grown to nearly 2,000 individuals.)
Zoo spokeswoman Simmons said the zoo helped improve the survivability of young pandas.
“In 1996, pandas had a mortality rate of 50% for all giant panda youngsters,” she said. “And now they have almost no mortality.”
Thomas explained that the zoo learned about behaviors, maternal care and how to hand-rear panda babies. Also about their vocalizations, including “bleating” when moms are in estrus, or heat.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species has “downlisted” the giant panda’s status to vulnerable — meaning that while threats to pandas’ survival remain high, indicators show the species is in less danger of extinction than before.Zhang thanked “our American friends” for their love and care of the giant pandas and for great support of the cause of giant panda conservation.
“I wish to assure our friends that after returning, Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu will enjoy the same happy and healthy life as they enjoyed here,” he said. “They will continue to be taken good care of and will manage to get attached to a new living environment…. We welcome our friends to visit China more often to see how Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu will do in their new habitat.”
Will the pandas have any problems with a colder Chinese climate?
“I don’t think so,” said Thomas, the animal keeper. “They appreciate the cooler temperatures. In fact, there’s been days when we’ve not had pandas viewable to the public because they’ve been inside their air-conditioned off-exhibit spaces. So I think they’ll be just fine.”
A new cuisine is in store as well.
Along with the main diet of bamboo, the zoo has been feeding the pandas processed biscuits with bamboo leaves — “something they can eat very quickly,” Thomas said.
Now the pandas are “transitioning to the bread they’ll get in China,” which “they love.” (San Diego keepers had input on nutrition.)
“They’re very interesting, intense, complex animals,” she said, calling Bai Yun “a big part of my life…. And to be able to work with them on a daily basis is just something that I’ll cherish.”
Spokeswoman Simmons said it’s sad to see these pandas go home, “but the fact that we are able to send them home a little early is actually a success because we solved all of the problems that we got into this for.”
The zoo is especially proud of the natural mating of Bai Yun and Gao Gao (who returned to China in October 2018).
“Pandas are solitary animals, so the breeding is in a very narrow window of time — sometimes she’s in estrus only three days out of the year,” Thomas told Times of San Diego. “So the timing on when to put these animals together is critical.”
They studied Bai Yun’s hormones, documented her estrus through psychology, behavior, “so we were really able to pinpoint when the correct time to put Bai Yun and Gao Gao together for successful breeding.”
A Chinese reporter asked Thomas whether Bai Yun loved Gao Gao.
“Well, 357 days out of the year, no she doesn’t love Gao Gao,” Thomas said. “But three days, maybe, a couple hours in those three days, yes.”
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