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Britain bids farewell to its only giant pandas after 12 years

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's two giant pandas, the only pair in the country, will munch bamboo stalks in front of crowds at Edinburgh Zoo for the final time on Thursday before their 12-year stay comes to an end and they return home to China.

Zookeepers have spent the last few weeks making sure the two pandas, Yang Guang and Tian Tian, are used to crates in preparation for their long journey, expected at some point in early December.

The pair came to Edinburgh in 2011 as part of a ten-year agreement between the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and the China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA). The deal was extended for two years due to the pandemic.

When they arrived the hope was that they would produce a cub, but despite the zoo's best efforts, including artificial insemination and several bouts of media excitement over possible pregnancies, it was not to be.

Shrugging off that disappointment, RZSS Chief Executive David Field said the pandas had helped the zoo connect with people and highlighted the charity's conservation causes.

"Yang Guang and Tian Tian have had an incredible impact by inspiring millions of people to care about nature," he said in a statement.

The RZSS charity said it had paid $500,000 annually to the CWCA under the terms of the extended agreement.

The return of the Edinburgh bears to China comes as a number of giant pandas have also headed home from the U.S., part of a fading legacy in which giant pandas served as animal ambassadors.

That began in 1972, when the government of China presented two giant pandas as gifts to the U.S. after President Richard Nixon's historic Cold War visit to the communist country.

Earlier in November, Washington's three bears were returned, following those from zoos in Memphis and San Diego.

(Reporting by Sarah Young; Editing by Jan Harvey)