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News / Life / Pets & Wildlife

Fans say good bye to pandas

Animals on loan to Atlanta’s zoo are returning to China

By Bo Emerson, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published: March 8, 2024, 6:00am

ATLANTA — Kim Chambliss drove six hours from Lexington, Ky., to take a last look at Atlanta’s pandas.

“I knew they were leaving, and I couldn’t get to D.C. before they left there,” said Chambliss, a registered nurse.

She stood peering through the glass at one of Zoo Atlanta’s indoor panda habitats, with her husband, James Chambliss, a surveyor, who explained he was only there to provide transportation. “I’m the chauffeur.”

As the Chambliss couple watched, panda mom Lun Lun tentatively crawled up some branches and out on top of a section of corrugated pipe.

“They are just marvelous animals,” said Kim. “I wish they wouldn’t take them back. I love watching them on the panda-cam.”

Nearby, one of the female cubs, either Xi Lun or Ya Lun, ran around her indoor area, unaccountably energetic. A stash of freshly cut bamboo, bristling with leaves, blocked her way. This was her supper. She plunged into it headfirst.

Watching the young panda were Vicki Massingill and her daughter Courtney Massingill, who had driven to Atlanta from Knoxville, Tenn. to see this family of four before they move overseas.

“I understand that they were just on loan, but it’s a shame,” said Vicki.

Panda fans have been trooping to Atlanta to wave goodbye. Pandas at zoos in San Diego, Memphis and Washington, D.C., have all been returned to China, leaving Atlanta as the sole U.S. den for these black and white herbivores, and Atlanta’s pandas will go back to China sometime this year.

The end of panda breeding programs in the U.S. was blamed on cooling relations between the U.S. and China.

But take heart, panda fans. China may be returning to “panda diplomacy” after all. The San Diego Zoo announced recently that China will send them another pair of pandas this year.

And Raymond B. King, president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta, was optimistic about Atlanta’s chances to again become panda hosts in the future.

“There’s a high level of mutual respect going both ways,” said King. “They send delegations over to see how we’re doing, and they’ve never left with any criticism.”

Atlanta’s stewardship of Lun Lun and Yang Yang always came with an end date, he points out.

Lun Lun and Yang Yang were just two years old when they arrived at Zoo Atlanta in 1999 from the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in the Sichuan province.

It was hoped that they would breed, and Atlanta’s contract with China included a stipulation that all Lun Lun and Yang Yang’s offspring would be sent to China when they reached maturity. This has worked out well for the Chengdu center because Atlanta’s couple have produced seven little bears, five of whom are back in China and one of whom has sired seven cubs of his own.

The panda program at Zoo Atlanta is “our proudest conservation story,” said King. “There are few success stories in animal conservation, but the growing population of pandas in the wild is directly attributable to this program that we participate in.”

In the 1980s pandas were on the brink of extinction, but conservation efforts have increased their numbers to perhaps 1,850 in the wild, and another 600 in captivity. Payments from overseas zoos have helped China fund this resurgence. Since 1999 Zoo Atlanta has paid $16 million to the Chengdu center, for the privilege of exhibiting the animals.

In return, the Atlanta facility has had a surge of interest from attendees. “It was a game changer,” said King. “It put us in a league of our own.”

Visitation in Atlanta boomed with the arrival of the Ailuropoda melanoleuca (from the Greek, “ailuropoda” meaning “cat foot” and “melanoleuca” meaning “black/white”). Visitors were particularly charmed by the baby pandas that showed up with regularity.

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In 2013 Zoo Atlanta became the first U.S. zoo to successfully raise twin pandas.

Now, with the panda family’s imminent departure, attendance is booming again. During the three months since the last pandas left the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., attendance rose 21% compared to the same time period last year.