South Koreans bid emotional farewell to beloved panda leaving for China

SEOUL, South Korea — (AP) — A crowd of people, some weeping, gathered at a rain-soaked amusement park in South Korea to bid farewell to a beloved giant panda before her departure to China on Wednesday.

Fu Bao has been a major attraction at the Everland theme park near Seoul since she was born there in 2020 to pandas Ai Bao and Le Bao, who came from China in 2016 on a 15-year lease program.

China sends pandas abroad as a sign of goodwill but maintains ownership over the animals and their cubs. Decades of conservation efforts in the wild and study in captivity saved the species from extinction, increasing its population from fewer than 1,000 at one time to more than 1,800 in the wild and in captivity.

On Wednesday, many panda fans in South Korea braved rain to attend a farewell ceremony at the Everland park for Fu Bao, who was to be flown to China later in the day.

As a truck carrying Fu Bao slowly moved to a plaza in the rain, many visitors wearing raincoats or holding umbrellas waved flags, shouted their parting messages and took photos with their mobile phones. Some loudly cried or wiped away tears.

The truck was decorated with a huge picture of Fu Bao and the message “It was a miracle that we met you. Thank you, Fu Bao.”

But she wasn’t shown to the public on Wednesday. The park last showed her to the public on March 3.

“You are our baby panda forever even if 10 years pass or 100 years pass,” zookeeper Kang Cheol-won said in a speech during the ceremony. “Dear all, Fu Bao is now leaving. Please, remember Fu Bao for a long, long time … and please don’t cry much!”

Fu Bao's mother, Ai Bao, gave birth last year to female twin cubs, the first panda twins born in South Korea.