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Scotland bids farewell to its giant pandas, who are returning to China after a 12-year stay

By Associated Press
Published: December 1, 2023, 8:11am

EDINBURGH, Scotland (AP) — Visitors to the Edinburgh Zoo had their final chance to see and bid farewell Thursday to a pair of popular giant pandas who are returning home to China after more than a decade in Scotland.

Yang Guang and Tian Tian are leaving in early December after a 12-year stay. They have been a popular attraction since people lined the road outside the zoo to greet them when they arrived in 2011.

They are the latest pandas to leave the West after exchange agreements have expired and not been renewed by China.

The only U.S. zoo with pandas is in Atlanta and its agreement expires next year. Washington’s National Zoo sent its three pandas — Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their cub, Xiao Qi Ji — to China earlier in November. The black and white bears at the San Diego Zoo were sent home in 2019 and the remaining panda at the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee returned earlier this year.

Veteran China-watchers have speculated that the People’s Republic is gradually pulling its bears from American and European zoos due to tensions with Western governments over a host of issues.

However, Chinese President Xi Jinping said during his recent trip to the U.S. that his government was “ready to continue” lending bears to American zoos, giving hope to U.S. panda fans that they haven’t seen the last of them.

The pair in Scotland are the only pandas in the U.K. After unsuccessful breeding attempts — natural and artificial — the zoo said it has no plans to bring in others because a global biodiversity crisis requires it to work on protecting more endangered animals.

“With more than a million species at risk of extinction and our natural world in crisis, Yang Guang and Tian Tian have had an incredible impact by inspiring millions of people to care about nature,” said David Field, chief executive of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. “That added interest in the pandas’ departure this year has allowed us to connect many more people with the conservation causes (we are) actively involved with, and with nature more generally.”

The pandas were loaned to the zoo in 2011 under a 10-year agreement that the China Wildlife Conservation Association extended for two more years.

The panda exhibit was being closed to the public Thursday afternoon to allow staff to begin preparing the bears for their return.