Panda patriarch Gao Gao returns to China from US, his breeding work complete

  • Five cubs the legacy of veteran zoo resident’s partnership with Bai Yun
  • Painstaking preparations had readied him for the journey home
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2018, 3:36pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2018, 4:11pm

Gao Gao’s gone. The eldest of three giant pandas at San Diego Zoo, Gao Gao left on Tuesday morning to return to China, where he was born.

The departure concludes a long-term loan from China to the zoo. By all accounts, it was a highly successful one. Along with matriarch Bai Yun, he produced five cubs, the youngest of which, Xiao Liwu, remains behind with his mother.

Gao Gao’s departure was kept under wraps for safety reasons, the zoo said. It was so secretive that the zoo would not disclose what time he left, or the mode of transport or route.

The tight security matched Gao Gao’s status. Pandas are Chinese cultural icons as well as a rare species. For conservation purposes and international diplomacy, their safety comes above all other considerations.

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Then there is Gao Gao’s condition. He is about 28, making him a senior panda citizen. He has had health problems in recent years. So the zoo wanted nothing out of the ordinary to occur that would upset or stress him, such as a gawking public or protests from animal-rights activists.

Transporting such a prized diplomatic cargo thousands of miles requires intense logistical planning, including training Gao Gao to accept confinement in a crate and to ignore the loud sounds around him.

Gao Gao is travelling with an experienced keeper and a veterinary surgeon who have looked after him for years. They are senior keeper Kathy Hawk, and veterinary surgeon Meg Sutherland-Smith.

“We prepare (pandas) intensely for a trip,” Hawk said last week. “Crate training, getting used to any noises like forklifts, confined spaces and everything. So we start well in advance before the trip.”

Added to that preparation is the rapport the keepers develop with their charges.

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“I’ve seen this bear just stay focused on you, if you’re hand feeding him or giving him a favourite treat,” Hawk said. “A forklift can go by. He may glance at it, but he stays absolutely focused.”

Both the zoo and the Chinese government have been carefully planning for this day for some time, said Carmi Penny, the zoo’s director of collections husbandry science.

Since China only loans pandas, it is expected from the day of their arrival that they will one day return. This includes pandas born elsewhere under a loan agreement: all are the property of China.

Once in China, Gao Gao will first go through quarantine, then be admitted to the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda, Penny said. It is in Dujiangyan, located in central China.

Pandas there are housed in individual enclosed areas, with access to large outside spaces, Penny said.

The details of Gao Gao’s life there will be up to his Chinese keepers.

Pandas have immense cultural significance for the Chinese, said Edward Dong, a Chinese-American businessman with extensive professional ties to China. He is founding chair of the US-China Committee, part of the International Leadership Foundation, a non-profit focused on developing civic and cultural leaders in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Besides five offspring, Gao Gao also gave panda researchers at the zoo and elsewhere a wealth of information about what makes a successful panda papa. And panda populations in the wild and in captivity have mushroomed.

Because of his age, Gao Gao’s breeding years are behind him. In 2014, his cancerous right testicle was removed. It was a non-aggressive type of tumour, called a seminoma, which generally does not metastasise. He also takes medication for a heart condition.

So Gao Gao has been retired from being on display for the last few years. He has had his own private patio, with tree stumps to climb if he was in the mood, along with food and even hay to lie down in, and an indoor area to which he was brought during the night, a sort of den where he would be more easily watched over.

Last Saturday morning, Gao Gao got up for an early meal, then lazily lay down sideways. His eyes closed, his pink tongue flickering in and out. He got up, turned around, then once again lay back down.

It is unknown whether another panda or pandas will be sent to replace Gao Gao. There has to be a legitimate research purpose, Penny said.

If so, the zoo is prepared: its panda centre can accommodate up to six pandas, Penny said.

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China has sent pandas to other countries for centuries. They were originally sent as gifts, but in recent decades China has made only panda loans, retaining ownership and requiring their eventual return.

So called “panda diplomacy” brought a gift of the pandas Hsing-Hsing, a male, and female Ling-Ling to the United States in 1972. They were sent to the National Zoo in Washington, where they lived for many years.

The gift came in response to then president Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China earlier that year. That initiative helped thaw relations between the two governments, which had previously been on unfriendly terms for decades.

However, while Ling-Ling bore cubs, none of them survived more than a few days. No panda cub born in the US survived to adulthood until 1999, when Hua Mei was born at San Diego Zoo to Bai Yun.

The zoo’s first panda loan was made in 1987, when Basi and Yuan Yuan were hosted for 200 days to much excitement.

For the next decade, the zoo pursued a more long-term arrangement. That had to be approved by the Chinese and US governments. The zoo submitted a proposal to study panda procreation, so they asked for a male and female.

Bai Yun arrived with the male Shi Shi in 1996. But he was not interested in Bai Yun’s amorous advances, and their only child was born by artificially inseminating Bai Yun. Gao Gao arrived at the zoo in January 2003 as Shi Shi’s replacement.

Gao Gao proved more proficient, fathering five cubs with Bai Yun, all the natural way.