Tokyo: Thousands of Japanese fans on Sunday bade farewell to four beloved pandas which will be returned to China this week, with some visitors shedding tears.
Visitors flocked to Tokyo's Ueno Zoo to catch a last glimpse of Xiang Xiang, who has been a massive draw for the park since her birth in 2017, and to a park in western Wakayama region for the other three pandas.
In Tokyo, the final viewing of Xiang Xiang, the zoo's first baby panda since 1988, was limited to 2,600 visitors who won a lucky lottery ticket, but some fans who did not win still came.
"I wanted to breathe the same air," as Xiang Xiang, Mari Asai told the Asahi Shimbun daily.
"Even if I cannot see her, my heart is filled with joy knowing she's there," the 48-year-old said.
Another visitor told local media, crying, that she wanted to be closer to the five-year-old panda.
"Everything about her is adorable, whether sleeping or awake," she said.
Ueno Zoo receives calls and emails every day from panda fans asking it to keep Xiang Xiang, the Tokyo Shimbun daily reported, citing a zoo official.
The panda was initially set to head to China in 2021 but its departure was postponed multiple times due to travel restrictions linked to the pandemic.
In Wakayama, visitors came to say good-bye to Eimei, which became the world's oldest to father a baby panda in 2020 at age 28, the equivalent of being in his 80s for a human, as well as his twin daughters.
"Everyone is so cute I almost cried," a woman in her 70s told public broadcaster NHK.
"I'm sad they're going back to China."
The black and white mammals are immensely popular around the world and China loans them out as part of a "panda diplomacy" programme to foster foreign ties.
There are an estimated 1,860 giant pandas left in the wild, mainly in bamboo forests in the mountains of China, according to environmental group WWF.
There are about 600 in captivity in panda centres, zoos and wildlife parks around the world.