Britain’s only two pandas will soon be returned to China, officials said, in a send-off that has dispirited fans of the playful, waddling bears and signals what appears to be the end, at least for now, of panda diplomacy.
“Bamboo bon voyage,” the Edinburgh Zoo of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland said on its website, noting that there would be “a giant farewell” on Thursday for the bears, whose names are Yang Guang and Tian Tian.
The pair of giant pandas will be prepared to return to China in the first week of December, the zoo said, though it did not specify a date because of “security and safety reasons.”
China has long used its pandas as symbols of diplomacy, delivering pairs as if they were ambassadors to several countries around the world.
On Wednesday, crowds gathered to say goodbye and catch one final look at Yang Guang and Tian Tian, who for 12 years have enraptured millions of visitors and residents of Edinburgh.
“We’ve flown up for the day; we must be mad,” Lauren Darling, who recently visited the zoo, told The Telegraph. “But it had to be done. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Another visitor, Rebecca Plant, told the paper, “I think loads of people will be sad they’ve gone.”
The pandas’ imminent departure from Britain comes weeks after the three giant pandas at the National Zoo in Washington were also returned to China, at a time when U.S.-China tensions continue to rise, prompting speculation that China is asking for the return of the pandas because of the deep freeze in diplomatic relations.
But American zoo officials and scientists said that it came down to biology, or “panda time,” since the three pandas should be going back to China because they are at an advanced age.
A similar reason was cited by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. The pandas, the zoo said, arrived in Edinburgh in December 2011 as part of a 10-year arrangement between the organization’s charity and the China Wildlife Conservation Association, which allowed them to keep the pandas an extra two years because of the pandemic.
Now, that arrangement has reached its end. The zoo also said that it would convert its giant panda habitat to welcome a new endangered species in the future as part of its mission to “protect more endangered animals around the world.” Until recently, pandas had been considered endangered, but after conservation efforts they are listed as vulnerable.
Still, there was a grieving tone in the Scottish zoo’s announcement, which noted that it would not be receiving more pandas anytime soon.
“Their power to connect people with nature and encourage behavior change is invaluable,” the zoo said of Yang Guang and Tian Tian.
The only natural habitat for giant pandas is in southwestern China, where their distinct black-and-white fur provides camouflage, and where they swim in streams and climb trees, spending 10 to 16 hours a day feeding mainly on bamboo.
When Yang Guang and Tian Tian first arrived in Edinburgh, dozens of people lined the streets of suburban Corstorphine and waved Scottish and Chinese flags to welcome the animals as they were transported to the zoo, with children holding cutouts of panda faces.
“I’m just so happy that I’ve seen them!” one woman, among the pandas’ first visitors, told The Telegraph in 2011.
That delight, though, did not come cheap. Caring for Tian Tian and Yang Guang, including providing for their food and health care expenses, cost the zoo’s charity about 35,000 pounds, or more than $44,000, a month.
The zoo also paid $500,000 a year to support the conservation and welfare of giant pandas in China.
While the pandas were in Scotland, zoo officials had tried to breed them, but those efforts were unsuccessful.
“Now is the time to move on,” the zoo said, “and just enjoy having Yang Guang and Tian Tian with us before they leave.”