Zoo Atlanta will return giant pandas to China by end of 2024

Giant panda Lun Lun (Zoo Atlanta)

Zoo Atlanta's giant pandas will soon head back to China, but the zoo is planning a summer of celebrations before they leave the country.

For now, Atlanta's two adults and two baby pandas are the only giant pandas left in the United States after the three giant pandas at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C. left for China

Every giant panda in the U.S. is on loan from the Chinese government as part of a 50-year conservation program. At every zoo in the country - except Atlanta’s - that loan expired in December.

On Friday, the zoo announced that they have applied for Lun Lun, Yang Yang, Ya Lun, and Xi Lun's international travel permits. The bears are expected to head to China in the fourth quarter of 2024.

The zoo says more details about the departure will come later while it collaborates on the timing with its Chinese partners.

Ya Lun and Xi Lun (Zoo Atlanta)

Zoo Atlanta's summer panda celebration

While the zoo has not discussed continuing its giant panda program after its current agreement expires, it is planning a summer of events celebrating the species and the 25th anniversary of Lun Lun and Yang Yang coming to the city over the summer. 

The kickoff event will be hosted on Saturday, June 1, and will include cultural performances and educational activities.

Activities will be free for Zoo Atlanta members or anyone who purchases a general admission ticket.

For now, you can also watch the pandas' antics on the Zoo's popular Panda Cam.

Zoo Atlanta's panda history

China first began loaning giant pandas to the U.S. in 1972 to commemorate President Nixon's historic visit to the Communist nation. Amid strained tensions between the U.S. and China President Xi Jinping, foreign policy researchers said it’s a sign of the times. 

"You see it with the pandas, with his attacks on the dollar, even with his nuclear weapons," said Rebecca Grant with IRIS Independent Research. "Frankly, the Communist Party of China just doesn't need to do panda diplomacy anymore."

Zoo Atlanta has worked with China since the mid-1990s on research dealing with the care and conservation of the species. Lun Lun and Yang Yang arrived at the zoo in 1999. Since 2006, seven giant pandas have been born at the zoo including Mei Lan (born 2006); Xi Lan (born 2008); Po (born 2010); twins Mei Lun and Mei Huan (born 2013); and twins Ya Lun and Xi Lun (born 2016).

During the 50 years of panda exchanges, the animal has been removed from the list of endangered species, though fewer than 1,900 giant pandas are believed to remain in the wild in China.

Panda fans shouldn't fret. This year, China made a deal with the San Diego Zoo to send them a pair of pandas, the first such bears sent to the United States by China in decades. Those pandas should arrive in the U.S. by the end of the year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.