San Diego Zoo bids farewell to giant pandas

SAN DIEGO -- The San Diego Zoo announced Monday that its two remaining giant pandas will return home to China in April.

The pandas, named Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu were at the San Diego Zoo as part of a long-term panda loan. Bai Yun, a female, is 27 years old. Xiao Liwu is Bai Yun's 6-year-old son. A public celebration taking place over the course of "a couple of weeks" is scheduled for next month, according to the zoo.

Visitors will be able to continue viewing the two pandas through April 27. Fans of the two are encouraged to share their favorite memories using the hashtag #Panda4Ever on social media.

The pandas' departure marks the last pandas the zoo has on loan from the Chinese government. Zoo officials say that panda conservation efforts will continue, though in exactly what form was uncertain.

"Although we are sad to see these pandas go, we have great hopes for the future," said Shawn Dixon, the zoo's chief operating officer. "Working with our colleagues in China, San Diego Zoo Global is ready to make a commitment for the next stage of our panda program."

Since pandas made their first appearance at the zoo more than three decades ago, wild population numbers have increased for the endangered species, at least in part, zoo officials say, due to knowledge gained during the combined tenure of Bai Yun, her six cubs and giant panda patriarch Gao Gao, who was returned to China last October.

In recent years, the International Union for Conservation of Nature downgraded the giant panda's status from Endangered to Vulnerable, indicating that there are still threats to the species' survival, but that pandas are in less danger of extinction than before.

"Thanks to the work we've done, we have met the initial conservation goals we set more than 25 years ago," said Carmi Penny, the zoo's director of Collections Husbandry Science. "Now, we must look to the future with a new set of objectives -- and along with our collaborators in China, we want to build on our current conservation successes while attaining a deeper understanding of the panda."

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