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'Olympic Pandas' head for Sichuan home
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Eight pandas flown to Beijing last May to add cheer to the Olympics will return to their hometown in southwest China's Sichuan Province upcoming Sunday, a Beijing Zoo official said Tuesday.

Zhang Jinguo, deputy chief of Beijing Zoo, said the eight bears would leave Beijing's Capital Airport at 11 a.m. Sunday on a flight to the China Giant Panda Protection and Research Center in Bifengxia.

The 'Olympic Pandas' eat bamboos at Beijing Zoo March 17, 2009.

The "Olympic Pandas"  eat bamboos at Beijing Zoo March 17, 2009.

Hearing that the pandas will go home, many zoo visitors seized the chance to take more photos of the bears.

"I'm very much fond of pandas, so I visit the zoo very often," said a woman who lives in Beijing and would only give her surname, Liu. "I don't like them to go."

"They should be sent back to Sichuan because that region is their home where the environment is suitable for their survival," said another woman.

The devastating earthquake last May caused severe damage to the China Giant Panda Protection and Research Center in the Wolong base, where most of the country's captive pandas were kept. Wolong is just 30 km from the epicenter of the quake.

Five base staff were killed, as was one captive panda. Two pandas were injured and six went missing, five of which were eventually found.

A donation drive to rebuild the damaged habitat started last June.

The eight pandas, selected from among 16 candidates at Wolong, were brought to Beijing Zoo on May 24 last year.

The pandas have been living in three pens with constant temperature, similar to their natural habitat, at the Beijing Zoo. Their living quarters have wooden "trees," a mural and swimming pools.

Yang Changjiang, a keeper at Wolong who came to Beijing to take care of the eight pandas, said the bears had adapted well to the climate and life in Beijing.

"The cubs, aged two to three, can eat 159 kilograms of bamboo, two kilograms of apples, as well as other food, and they put on weight fast," said the keeper.

In their early days in Beijing, the cubs had a poor appetite and could only eat 2 kg to 3 kg of bamboo a day.

Three of the pandas, Huanhuan, Fuwa and Meixin, each gained about 20 kg during their stay in Beijing, said Yang.

They have attracted more than 2.1 million tourists so far.

"While in Beijing, the pandas appeared to like playing in the snow the most," said the keeper.

"It snowed twice in February. The pandas seemed happy at seeing snow, and often remained outside their pens digging the snow-covered ground or throwing snow at each other."

Tang Chunxiang, assistant to the director of Bifengxia base, confirmed Tuesday the eight pandas would return to Bifengxia and stay there before the rebuilding of the Wolong base is finished.

"The Wolong base has been seriously destroyed in the quake and it will take one to two more years for it to resume functioning," said Tang.

After the powerful quake destroyed the Wolong base, 50 or so pandas went to live at the Bifengxia base, while 20 others were sent to live in other zoos across the country,including the eight sent to Beijing.

Tang said that pandas at Bifengxia produced 14 cubs in nine litters since last May, and 13 of the newborns survived.

Zhang Jinguo of the Beijing Zoo added that two months after the eight pandas were flown back, three to six other pandas would be sent from Sichuan to his zoo where pandas would be put on display in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in October.

Beijing Zoo also has eight other pandas, according to Zhang.

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