Xiang Xiang, a hugely popular Japanese-born female giant panda at the Ueno Zoological Gardens in Tokyo, on Tuesday departed for China, where she is set to start her search for a mate.
Accompanied by two zoo employees keeping a close eye on her, Xiang Xiang was taken from the zoo by truck Tuesday morning to Narita Airport, where she was put on a charter flight bound for China’s Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport, according to the Tokyo metropolitan government.
“I want to thank her for making so many people happy,” said zoo director Yutaka Fukuda. “I hope (that her return to China) will contribute to panda conservation research.”
Staff waved goodbye as Xiang Xiang was driven slowly out of the zoo at around 7:10 a.m., while huge crowds gathered in the area surrounding the facility.
Yumiko Ushijima rushed into the capital on the first train from neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture to see Xiang Xiang off. “I miss her, but I want her to become a good parent like her mother Shin Shin,” the 69-year-old woman said.
As both her parents were on loan from China, the country maintains ownership over all cubs born to them. Xiang Xiang, born at the zoo in June 2017 to father Ri Ri and Shin Shin, was Ueno Zoo’s first naturally conceived giant panda.
The Chinese Embassy in Tokyo said pandas have delivered friendship and goodwill widely throughout Japanese society, uniting the hearts of the people of both countries, also referring to other pandas to be returned to China on Wednesday from a zoo in Wakayama Prefecture in western Japan.
It was “thankful for the cutest ‘messenger of friendship'” and that it looked forward to welcoming Japanese people to Sichuan Province where the pandas will live, the embassy said in a statement.
After the roughly five-and-a-half hour flight, the panda will be taken to a giant panda research center in the province, where she will be quarantined and her final destination will be decided, according to the Tokyo government.
The five-year-old panda will make the trip in a cage that is 1.3 meters tall, 1.7 meters long and 1.1 meters wide.
According to Ueno Zoo, workers have been practicing luring Xiang Xiang into the cage with food since November last year. The two employees accompanying her hope to keep her stress levels low during the trip.
Female pandas are said to reach breeding age between 3 and a half and 4 and a half years. Caretakers have confirmed she is of good weight and health and went into estrus earlier this year.
“This is (her) first long-haul trip,” said zoo official Naoya Ohashi. “I want all possible precautions taken.”
Takahiro Takauji from near Tokyo, who has posted about Ueno Zoo pandas on his blog for over 10 years, bid farewell to Xiang Xiang on her final day for public viewing on Sunday after winning a lottery slot to attend her final appearance. He promised to travel to China to see the animal again.
Although saddened by her departure, the 44-year-old Saitama resident said the most important thing is for Xiang Xiang to find a mate.
“Being able to meet many different males will lead to her happiness,” he said.