Long-time, much-loved resident of Kobe City Oji Zoo, Tantan the panda will be making her way home to China this summer after 2 decades living in Japan.

Tantan first came to Kobe City Oji Zoo on July 16th, 2000 as part of a Japan-China joint research breeding programme, which was made in agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Society.

Tantan having a shaded bamboo picnic in 2017. Photo by pelican | CC by SA 2.0

When the panda first arrived at the zoo, Kobe City was still recovering from the devastation of the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. The arrival of Tantan helped to lift spirits in the aftermath of the disaster and has since become the zoo’s most popular animal in-residence, loved by generations of children and adults alike. Many of those who grew up with visits to the zoo during the 90’s and the early 00’s would have also introduced their own children to Tantan over the most recent years, filling the hearts of Kobe citizens with love and creating a legacy of fantastic memories that will last much longer than Tantan’s own lifetime.

Tantan was introduced to Kobe Zoo as part of a breeding programme in 2000. Originally supposed to have only lasted for 10 years, the zoo managed to attain a 5-year extension on the programme in 2010, and yet again in 2015, allowing Tantan to live an ex-pat life for 20 years at Kobe City Oji Zoo.

The breeding programme agreement will expire on July 15th, 2020, after which the repatriation of Tantan to Sichuan, China will commence, however, with the influence of COVID-19 the organisers behind the programme have acknowledged arranging a flight for the panda could be difficult, and so the specific return schedule is currently undecided. The zoo will provide more information regarding Tantan’s leaving date, farewell events and the final viewing opportunities once a decision is reached.

Although the life of Tantan has been given a lot of love from the people of Kobe, it has also experienced an upsetting amount of loss, as Tantan lost both of her cubs and her mating partner.

Pandas are notoriously slow at reproducing, and so after failing to mate the pair naturally, Kobe Zoo moved to artificially inseminate Tantan in 2010. Unfortunately, Tantan’s mate, 14-year-old Kou Kou, suffered cardiac arrest after he failed to recover from the anesthetic he was put under as part of the artificial insemination programme and died in September of 2010.

Previously, Tantan had fallen pregnant naturally in 2007, but the cub was stillborn. In August 2008 she gave birth to a live cub, but sadly it died 3 days later.

Tantan napping at Kobe City Oji Zoo in 2018. Photo by pelican | CC by SA 2.0

With decades of love and determination together, many citizens of Kobe city will most likely find the return of Tantan to her homeland difficult to come to terms with, especially right now. However, the mayor of Kobe City, Kizo Kumoto commented with encouragement on the decision:

Tantan came from China in 2000 to cheer up Kobe after the 1995 earthquake. For the past 20 years, she has energized and inspired many citizens, especially children. I am really grateful for the time we have had with Tantan. I think that her loveable appearance and gentle characteristics have filled the hearts of many citizens over the years.

I know that many children have seen and loved Tantan across generations, and after they grew up they also brought their own children to the zoo so that they could meet Tantan.

The return to China will be a mournful situation for the people of Kobe, but I would like them to continue to live their lives to the fullest in the city, where they are blessed with a fantastic natural environment and are surrounded by many good friends.

Kizo Kumoto -- Kobe City Mayor

To say thanks to Tantan, the zoo plans to hold a farewell event, the “Thank you Tantan campaign”, where collections of memorable photographs and the sales of iconic merchandise and products will be available for viewing and purchase.

Tantan snacking on bamboo in 2009. Photo by pelican | CC by SA 2.0

Currently Kobe City Oji Zoo is closed so as to help prevent the spread of coronavirus infections. The zoo is planned to slowly reopen from June 1st, by selecting around 2,000 visitors per day from a special lottery, making the opportunity to see Tantan one last time before her return to China a possibility.

*The decision to reopen may change if the current coronavirus situation worsens, but as for now, the plans will go ahead from June 1st.

Once Tantan returns to China, Japan will have a total of 9 pandas, 3 at Ueno zoo and a further 6 who live at Adventure World in Wakayama.

By - Connie Sceaphierde.