Panda express: First pair to enter the United States in 21 years takes off from China

San Diego’s newest giant pandas are en route from China to California, according to Chinese state media – marking the first time Beijing has granted new panda loans to the United States in two decades.

The two pandas, Yun Chuan and Xin Bao, left the Bifengxia base of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Sichuan province on Wednesday night, taking a chartered flight to their new home, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

The rare loan was finalized in February, just months after Chinese leader Xi Jinping suggested sending pandas to the San Diego Zoo as “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.”

Xin Bao, a female born in July 2020, is a “gentle and well-behaved” panda, while Yun Chuan, a male born in July 2019, is “smart and lively,” CCTV reported.

They were given a celebratory farewell at the Chinese base, attended by American and Chinese dignitaries, including performances and a gift exchange, according to a statement from the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

To ensure their health and safety on the journey, their team has prepared meals of fresh bamboo, bamboo shoots, fruits, vegetables and a specially-made cornbread known as “wotou,” CCTV reported.

Five breeders and veterinary experts from both countries are also on the flight, with the Chinese experts staying on for three months after the pair arrive to help them “adapt to the new living environment,” according to CCTV.

The pandas won’t be viewable to the public for several more weeks while they acclimate – and once veterinary teams confirm they’re ready to meet their excited American fans, the zoo will share their debut date, it said.

China loans pandas to more than 20 countries under a program often referred to as “panda diplomacy.” Its panda loans with Washington stretch back to 1972 – though the number of loans have decreased in recent years as US-China relations have worsened.

The San Diego Zoo, one of the world’s most renowned, was the first American institution to carry out cooperative research on giant pandas with China. Since 1994, it has worked with the Sichuan conservation center to study the species’ behavior, genetics, artificial breeding, nutrition and disease prevention.

Fewer than 2,000 giant pandas remain in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which lists the species as vulnerable.

But the zoo has had no pandas for the past few years – it returned its last two pandas to China in 2019, after its loan agreement ended.

Yun Chuan’s mother, Zhen Zhen, was born at San Diego Zoo in 2007 to parents Bai Yun and Gao Gao, according to a press release issued by San Diego Zoo in April.

Grandmother Bai Yun was born in China in 1991, and arrived at the San Diego Zoo in 1996. She returned to China in 2019 at the age of 27, according to Chinese state media.

The Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC, also sent its three pandas back to China last November – marking the end of more than 50 years of Chinese pandas being housed at the zoo. The end of its program had left Zoo Atlanta as the only other US zoo to feature pandas.

Chinese leader Xi hinted at this newest loan last November, after extensive talks with President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in San Francisco.

“We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation, and do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples,” he said at the time.

This post appeared first on cnn.com
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