The San Diego Zoo will return its last two giant pandas to China next month, said zoo officials Monday.
"In honoring the terms of the Zoo's conservation loan agreement with the People's Republic of China, 27-year-old female giant panda Bai Yun and her son, 6-year-old Xiao Liwu, will leave the San Diego Zoo in April and will be repatriated to their ancestral homeland," said zoo officials in a statement.
As the first panda on loan, Bai Yun, or White Cloud in English, first arrived at the San Diego Zoo in 1996 from China. The cuddly panda soon became an iconic image of the zoo and one of the most popular animals. The name of her son, Xiao Liwu, means Little Gift in English.
"The San Diego Zoo was honored to be chosen by conservationists in China to work with them to develop a new model for species conservation," said Douglas G. Myers, president and CEO of San Diego Zoo Global.
"The panda program we began together demonstrates how powerful these collaborative efforts can be. We are extremely grateful to China for sharing the pandas with us and offering us the chance to serve this species in a leadership role," he added.
Another panda at the San Diego Zoo, 28-year-old Gao Gao, returned to China in October. Gao Gao means High High in English.
More than two decades ago the zoo became part of an international collaboration that included the China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA), the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP), the Chinese Academy of Sciences and other accredited zoos and conservation organizations, in an unprecedented international effort to prevent panda extinction.
Zoo officials noted that over the past two decades, conservation scientists have been able to raise the awareness for the plight of pandas in their native habitat.
Bai Yun, Gao Gao and Bai Yun's cubs -- including her sixth cub Xiao Liwu -- helped scientists learn a great deal about panda behavior, pregnancy, births, and maternal and geriatric care. This knowledge enabled them to help boost wild giant panda population in China to more than 2,000.
The giant panda, a conservation-reliant vulnerable species, only lives in a few mountain ranges in central China. Thanks to continuous protection efforts, the number of wild giant pandas has increased from 1,114 in the 1970s to 1,864, reveals data released by China's State Forestry and Grassland Administration in 2018.
San Diego Zoo Global staff, along with colleagues in China, are now working to determine and redefine the future of panda conservation and research, said the statement.
"Although we are sad to see these pandas go, we have great hopes for the future," said Shawn Dixon, chief operating officer of San Diego Zoo Global. "Working with our colleagues in China, San Diego Zoo Global is ready to make a commitment for the next stage of our panda program."
"We understand that pandas are beloved around the world, including by our staff, volunteers and millions of annual guests," said Dwight Scott, director of the San Diego Zoo.
"We are planning a fitting celebration next month for Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu that includes a big thank you to the Chinese people for their continued partnership and our combined conservation accomplishments in helping to save this amazing species," the director said.
Visitors can go to bid farewell to the giant pandas until April 27.
"It's the end of an era at the San Diego Zoo as the last two giant pandas will soon leave for China," said the San Diego Union-Tribune, a major local news outlet.
"San Diegans were stunned to learn Monday that the world famous San Diego Zoo would be returning their beloved giant pandas to China at the end of April," reported NBC 7 San Diego.
Many zoo guests shared their memories of and best wishes to the black and white big bear cats on social media following the announcement. Some of them said it's "the highlight" or "awesome experience" to see the pandas in person instead of Internet pictures.
Alyssa Nicole said her little panda-obsessed girl visited the pandas three times in a day during a panda event. "When it was time to say goodbye, she cried and wanted to stay with them."
"The pandas have been such an integral part of the SD Zoo and the breeding program to help make sure pandas flourish. I am so grateful for the relationship the zoo has with China and hope that after Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu return home, the work can continue!" wrote Susan Fahy Miller on the Facebook page of the San Diego Zoo.
The announcement post of the zoo on Facebook have gone viral, being liked more than 3,600 times with more than 500 comments in six hours.
Some fans of the pandas asked the zoo whether there is any chance to have a new pair of pandas in future.
"We were blessed to have been able to enjoy seeing these wonderful animals and help in their conservation. I hope the zoo receives another agreement with China to continue valuable work," wrote Bobette Smith on Facebook.
"The giant panda conservation program has been a tremendously successful effort to save a species. It has been collaborative and international, including conservationists and scientists from the U.S. and China, and it is a model for similar efforts to save endangered species," the zoo wrote on its Facebook page.
"The ongoing support of panda fans has been a vital component, and will continue to be important as we look forward to a new panda program," the zoo noted.
The San Diego Zoo, located in Southern California, is globally recognized as a San Diego icon by hosting more than 4 million visitors each year.