Japanese-born giant panda Xiang Xiang arrived Tuesday in China from a Tokyo zoo after large crowds bid farewell to the 5-year-old bear who became hugely popular in Japan but was sent to her parents' home country to start a search for a mate.

Xiang Xiang traveled to China's Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport aboard a charter flight, accompanied by two zoo employees watching her closely.

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 mother Shin Shin, was the Ueno Zoological Gardens' first naturally conceived giant panda.

Japanese-born giant panda Xiang Xiang is shown resting in a cage on charter plane on Feb. 21, 2023, in a Twitter post by Ueno Zoological Gardens. (Photo courtesy of the Tokyo Zoological Park Society)(Kyodo)

File photo shows Xiang Xiang, a five-year-old female giant panda, at Ueno Zoological Gardens in Tokyo on Feb. 19, 2023. (Kyodo)

Her transfer came a day before a further three pandas on loan from China were to be sent to the country from a zoo in western Japan's Wakayama Prefecture.

Some 300 people gathered at the observation deck of Narita airport near Tokyo to see Xiang Xiang take off.

"I want to thank her for making so many people happy," said zoo director Yutaka Fukuda. "I hope (that her transfer to China) will contribute to panda conservation research."

As Xiang Xiang was driven slowly out of the zoo at around 7:10 a.m., some people could be seen wearing panda items while others had tears in their eyes. They waved enthusiastically while zoo employees and security staff looked on.

Photo posted on the Ueno Zoological Gardens' official Twitter account shows a truck carrying Japanese-born giant panda Xiang Xiang following her arrival at Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport in China on Feb. 21, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Tokyo Zoological Park Society)(Kyodo)

Yumiko Ushijima rushed to the capital on the first train from neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture to see Xiang Xiang off. "I'll miss her, but I want her to become a good parent like her mother, Shin Shin," the 69-year-old woman said.

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.

The embassy said it was "thankful for the cutest 'messenger of friendship'" and looked forward to welcoming Japanese people to southwestern China's Sichuan Province, where Xiang Xiang and the other three pandas will live, according to a statement it released.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Xiang Xiang represents the results of the joint research China and Japan have conducted into the protection of giant pandas and that the two countries will continue the study.

"I hope giant pandas will continue to bring joy and friendship to our peoples," Wang said.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said the panda was "greatly beloved" as she expressed hopes for a healthy life for Xiang Xiang and that she will contribute to panda conservation.

Upon arrival following the roughly five-and-a-half hour flight, Xiang Xiang headed 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 metropolitan government.

Photo taken on Feb. 20, 2023, shows Bifengxia Giant Panda Base, a giant panda conservation and research facility in the city of Ya'an, in China's Sichuan province, where Japan-born Xiang Xiang will be sent. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

Xiang Xiang will be quarantined for one month before she can be shown to the public, according to Chinese media. The cage used to transport her was 1.3 meters tall, 1.7 meters long and 1.1 meters wide.

In Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, residents expressed appreciation for the Japanese people's love and care for Xiang Xiang and hope many fans will come to the province to see her.

A Japanese businessman, 51, living in the Chinese city, said, "I hope Xiang Xiang will bear offspring, and they will go to Japan."

According to the Ueno zoo, workers had been practicing luring Xiang Xiang into the cage with food since November last year. The two employees accompanying her had expressed their determination 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.

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 last appearance. He promised to travel to China to see the animal again.

Although saddened by her departure, the Saitama resident in his 40s said the most important thing is for Xiang Xiang to find a mate.

Xiang Xiang is the older sister of twins Xiao Xiao and Lei Lei, born in June 2021. Their parents' loan period has been extended to 2026.

The Ueno zoo, which opened in 1882, received its first pandas in 1972 from China in commemoration of the normalization of bilateral ties.

The three pandas to travel to Sichuan on Wednesday are Eimei, 30, who has fathered 16 cubs in Wakayama's Adventure World zoo, and his female twins Ouhin and Touhin, both 8.

Eimei, considered around 90 years old in human years, has been recognized as the world's oldest giant panda in captivity to produce offspring through natural breeding.


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