Bear necessities: here’s what you need to know about giant pandas coming to Hong Kong

Beijing plans to give Hong Kong another pair of giant pandas to mark the 27th anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty, with the move also expected to contribute to the local tourism trade.

At a handover anniversary event on Monday, Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu expressed his “deepest gratitude” for the gift from the central government, saying the move “fully demonstrates its care and support” for Hong Kong.

Tourism minister Kevin Yeung Yun-hung said intensive preparations were being made ahead of the pandas’ arrival, adding that he hoped the pair would help spur tourism.

Authorities are expected to share more details on Tuesday morning.

Before the latest duo arrive, the Post looks at previous occasions in 1999 and 2007 when Beijing sent giant pandas to Hong Kong.

1. What about the past two times?

Hong Kong received its first two pandas, An An and Jia Jia, in 1999 to celebrate the “smooth establishment of the ‘one country, two systems’ policy”, two years after the city’s return to Chinese rule.

Tung Chee-hwa, the city’s leader at the time, said the pair’s arrival also marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the handover of Macau, which was set to happen later that year on December 20.

Beijing also sent another pair of giant pandas, Ying Ying and Le Le, to Hong Kong in 2007 to mark the 10th anniversary of its handover.

Theme park Ocean Park said on Monday that since the first pair of giant pandas arrived at the resort in 1999, they had brought “countless precious and joyful memories to over 55 million visitors from Hong Kong and around the world”.

According to the park’s latest annual report, the sale of panda merchandise and animal interactive programmes amounted to HK$600,000 (US$76,800) for the financial year ending on June 30 of last year, an increase of HK$100,000 from 2021-22.

The figure only represented a small fraction of the HK$101.5 million worth of goods sold by the park that year.

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Authorities expect the arrival of two more giant pandas may help boost local tourism. Photo: Felix Wong

2. What is ‘panda diplomacy’?

The term refers to China sending or temporarily gifting giant pandas to countries and territories as a symbol of friendship, a practice dating back to the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), when Empress Wu Zetian is said to have sent a pair of the animals to Japan.

Beijing’s decision to send a pair of giant pandas to the United States in 1972 is widely considered an indicator of thawing relations after more than two decades of tensions.

The move also came hot on the heels of then US President Richard Nixon’s historic journey to the country two months earlier.

But Beijing changed how it handled panda diplomacy in the 1980s, with the animals being loaned to other countries for 10 years rather than being sent as gifts.

In November of last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping used the term “envoys of friendship” while in San Francisco to hint that more giant pandas would be loaned to the US.

Two giant pandas, Yunchuan and Xinbao, later arrived at California’s San Diego Zoo in February, marking the first time such animals had been loaned to the zoo since 1996.

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute also announced in May that pandas, Bao Li and Qing Bao, would be flown over to Washington from China before the end of the year.

3. What about Hong Kong’s first pair of giant pandas?

Jia Jia, the female of the pair, died in October 2016, at 38 years old, or about 114 in human years. She was the world’s oldest giant panda to have lived in captivity at the time of her death.

The male giant panda, An An, died in July 2022 after spending 23 years at Ocean Park. He was 35 years old, equivalent to being nearly 108 in human years.

He was born in Sichuan province and lived in the Wolong National Nature Reserve before coming to Hong Kong.

Giant pandas typically have a lifespan of about 20 years in the wild and up to 30 years in captivity.

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Crowds gather to catch a glimpse of giant panda Ying Ying at Ocean Park. Photo: Eugene Lee

4. How about the pair sent over in 2007?

China’s State Forestry Administration, which later became the National Forestry and Grassland Administration, gifted male and female giant pandas Le Le and Ying Ying to Hong Kong in April 2007.

The duo also came from the Wolong National Nature Reserve.

While the couple started mating in 2011, it was to no avail. Ying Ying later returned to Wolong in 2015 as part of a breeding programme and to receive artificial insemination.

On October 1 that year, Ocean Park announced the giant panda had become pregnant, but confirmed she had a miscarriage a week later.

A team of experts from Sichuan last year confirmed that Ying Ying no longer had a chance of becoming pregnant.

5. Any details on the incoming giant pandas?

Authorities are expected to share more details about the arrival of the new pair of giant pandas on Tuesday.

Ocean Park said on Monday that it would work with authorities to make the relevant preparations, adding that its animal keepers were experienced in caring for giant pandas.

The pair may also have their names chosen through a competition, similar to how Le Le and Ying Ying got their names.

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