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Celebrating 25 years of pandas

It’s a momentous year for Zoo Atlanta’s giant panda program. As we anticipate the pandas’ travels to China later this year, we’re also filled with gratitude as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the giant panda program at Zoo Atlanta. This is an extraordinary legacy, not just in the immense joy the pandas have spread over the last quarter-century, but in the incredible progress that’s been made in giant panda conservation efforts. 

The pandas at Zoo Atlanta have made such an amazing impact, not just on our community here in Atlanta, but for people around the world who have followed Lun Lun, Yang Yang, and their offsprings’ journeys over the years. Let’s take a moment to celebrate this rich history. 

Chinese delegates hold a photo of Lun Lun and Yang Yang outside the panda express plane1999 was an unforgettable year for the Zoo. Many may remember the royal welcome Lun Lun and Yang Yang received. The then 2-year-old pandas arrived on a special UPS plane dubbed the “Panda Express” and made the last leg of their journey by road with a police escort worthy of a state visit. The year 2000 saw record attendance numbers as visitors flocked to catch a glimpse of the rare black-and-white beauties.

There were, of course, high hopes that Lun Lun and Yang Yang would reproduce. Although the two displayed normal breeding behaviors, panda reproduction is famously challenging, given the incredibly brief window of fertility experienced by female pandas. With this in mind, in collaboration with our partners in China, the Zoo Atlanta team and Chinese colleagues began to employ artificial insemination methods, a process that was met with success in 2006 with the birth of Lun Lun’s first cub Mei Lan. All of Lun Lun and Yang Yang’s ensuing offspring would be conceived by artificial insemination. 

two small panda cubs lie next to each other
Mei Lun and Mei Huan

Lun Lun wowed those following her story with her phenomenal maternal instincts, which only developed further with the birth of Xi Lan in 2008. Another cub, Po, followed in 2010. Zoo Atlanta experienced a special moment of pride when twins Mei Lun and Mei Huan were born in 2013, the first panda twins to be born in the United States since 1987. When twins Ya Lun and Xi Lun were born in 2016, Zoo Atlanta became the first zoo in the United States to welcome two sets of panda twins.  

Ya Lun and Xi Lun were the seventh and final offspring of Lun Lun and Yang Yang. In 2018, with the backing of our colleagues at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, Zoo Atlanta announced a decision not to pursue further breeding with this pair, largely in consideration of Lun Lun’s age (she was 20 at the time). Lun Lun has more than earned her retirement, and the gentleness and care she demonstrated raising her cubs continues to be a source of inspiration. 

While the birth of seven cubs is certainly an accomplishment to be celebrated, Lun Lun, Yang Yang, and their offspring have contributed to many advancements in the global understanding of panda biology, behavior, and professional zoological care. Zoo Atlanta was the first organization to publish research on the use of positive reinforcement in training giant pandas, techniques that remain in use by the Panda Care Team to train behaviors that allow the pandas to participate in their own health care. Research by Zoo Atlanta and university partners at the Georgia Institute of Technology also includes inquiries into color vision, spatial memory, maternal behavior, early rearing, and play. 

And then there’s the over $17 million Zoo Atlanta has contributed to panda conservation over the past 25 years, making pandas our most significant financial investment in wildlife conservation. The majority of these funds are used for projects for wild giant pandas, and eight different nature reserves have been supported with these funds. 

The success of Zoo Atlanta’s giant panda program is a testament to the power of partnership, the investment of our community, and the above-and-beyond care provided by the Zoo Atlanta team. We’re so proud of this journey and the legacy Lun Lun, Yang Yang, and co. will leave with us here in Atlanta as we all look ahead to their next chapter. 

Find more on all things panda at Zoo Atlanta here 


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