Goodbye, Gao Gao. The San Diego Zoo said farewell Tuesday to one of its most recognizable fuzzy residents: Gao Gao, a giant panda who has long helped lead conservation efforts for the species.
Gao Gao – a father of five cubs, all born at the San Diego Zoo – had been living at the facility for the past 15 years as part of a long-term loan agreement with the People’s Republic of China.
With his work in San Diego now completed, the patriarch is returning to the Chinese Center for Research and Conservation for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP) in Dujiangyan, China, zoo officials said.
The panda’s departure comes as the San Diego Zoo’s giant panda conservation program enters a new phase. When the program began more than two decades ago, extinction threatened the species. Today, the giant panda population is on the rise, with about 2,000 giant pandas living in the wild, according to the zoo.
Two years ago, the increase in the panda population also led the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species to down-list pandas from endangered to vulnerable. While threats to the survival of the species remain high, the zoo said conservation efforts are working and pandas are in less danger of extinction than before.
Now, conservationists are creating a plan to continue protecting the panda for many years to come.
“We must look to the future with a new set of objectives and, along with our collaborators in China, build on current conservation successes while attaining a deeper understanding of the panda,” Carmi Penny, director of Collections Husbandry Science at the San Diego Zoo, said in a press release.
As one can imagine, transporting a panda to the other side of the world is not a simple undertaking. Zoo officials said Gao Gao traveled accompanied by some members from his animal care team.
Kathy Hawk, senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo, said Gao Gao’s diet was adjusted for the trip and he would be monitored carefully to ensure his return to his homeland would be “seamless.” Once he arrives in China, animal care specialists from both the CCRCGP and San Diego Zoo Global will help him get acclimated.
And, back in San Diego, though Gao Gao may be gone, zoo visitors can still marvel at pandas daily. The Panda Canyon exhibit at the San Diego Zoo continues to be home to two giant pandas – Bai-Yun, 27, and her son, Xiao Liwu, 6.