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Zoo Atlanta’s giant pandas will be sent to China later this year

<i>Megan Varner/Reuters via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Yang Yang
Megan Varner/Reuters via CNN Newsource
Yang Yang

By Rebekah Riess, CNN

(CNN) — Atlanta panda fans, prepare to bid goodbye to the city’s four iconic black and white bears.

The four giant pandas housed at Zoo Atlanta, Lun Lun, Yang Yang, Ya Lun and Xi Lun will be sent to China later this year, as the zoo’s agreement with China is set to expire in late 2024, the zoo announced in a news release Friday.

“Zoo Atlanta has applied for the pandas’ international travel permit, and the bears are expected to travel to China sometime in the fourth quarter of 2024,” the zoo said, noting the exact timing of their return has yet to be determined and “will be identified collaboratively with official partners in China.”

“While Zoo Atlanta remains committed to the stewardship and long-term conservation of the species, no discussions have yet taken place with partners in China as to the future of the Zoo’s giant panda program following the expiration of Zoo Atlanta’s current agreement,” the release added.

Zoo Atlanta pointed out its panda program has been “notably successful in terms of future contributions to the population of the species,” with seven giant pandas born at the zoo since 2006, including two pairs of twins. Lun Lun and Yang Yang are the parents of Ya Lun and Xi Lun. The pair’s other offspring have already been returned to the Chengdu Research Center of Giant Panda Breeding in China.

Over the last few years, pandas from the San Diego Zoo, Memphis Zoo and Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC were also returned to China.

But more pandas are set to arrive in different parts of the United States. In April, it was announced China would send giant pandas to live at San Francisco’s zoo for the first time. And the San Diego Zoo announced in February it would receive two giant pandas from China, marking the first time the country has granted new panda loans in the US in two decades.

Pandas have served as something of an unofficial barometer of China-US relations since 1972, when Beijing gifted a pair of the bears to the Smithsonian National Zoo, following US President Richard Nixon’s historic ice-breaking trip to China. Chinese leader Xi Jinping said in 2023 the bamboo-eating bears serve as “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.”

Just over 1,800 giant pandas remain in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which lists the species as vulnerable and describes them as the world’s rarest bear. Habitat destruction and fragmentation has contributed to the species’ decline.

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CNN’s Zoe Sottile contributed to this report.

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