Cathay flies Very Important Panda home

One of the stars from San Diego Zoo flies home to China

Cathay Pacific Cargo flew a bona fide VIP and his entourage back to his homeland last month. Gao Gao is a ‘very important panda’, and has sired five offspring at San Diego Zoo in California, doing much to help conserve the Giant Panda.

Now aged 26, which is around 80 in human terms, he has returned back to the Chinese Center for Research and Conservation for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP) in Dujiangyan, close to Chengdu in the Chinese mainland.

Cargo Clan caught up with Gao Gao and his support team, comprising the zoo’s chief vet, a veterinary nurse, the specialist freight forwarder and his keeper for the past 15 years. They transited in Hong Kong at the Cathay Pacific Cargo Terminal’s Large Animal Handling Centre as they took a break before flying on to Chengdu on another Cathay Pacific freighter flight.


Peter Sund is Vice-President of Air Market Express. ‘We are a general forwarding company, but I have made 11 panda shipments to date, including taking Gao Gao to San Diego 15 years ago,’ he said. ‘Our other specialism is moving semi-conductor equipment to Europe.’

He was delighted with progress on the journey, which had started at 3am in San Diego. Gao Gao had been trucked to Los Angeles where he boarded a Cathay Pacific Boeing 747 freighter, calling in at Anchorage and Hong Kong before the final leg to Chengdu. ‘Everything has gone very well, very smoothly,’ Peter added. ‘His keeper has been with him for 15 years and Gao Gao knows her very well. As long as she is here, Gao Gao is very quiet and very calm. He’s getting old, so that’s why this time we have three people travelling with him.’

Despite the long journey the party was in good spirits, but Gao Gao slightly tired, according Senior Keeper Kathy Hawk. ‘This is my first panda transport in all my years of doing this and so far Gao Gao has done exceptionally well,’ she said. ‘Gao Gao is a very unique panda. They can be shy – as well as aggressive, they are bears after all – but he really likes to interact with his keepers. He’s a senior citizen but he’s still very engaged with his surroundings and his keepers.’

San Diego Zoo, as one of the zoos that is central to conserving the species, is well versed with panda shipments, and operates a programme of acclimatisation to get them used to the crate, plus the noises they are likely to encounter en route.

‘We’ve already shipped five cubs back to China and we do a lot ahead of the flight,’ said Kathy. ‘We get them used to the crate and noises like forklifts, buzzers and beepers. We try to desensitise them as much as we can to make the journey as stress-free as possible. The neat thing is being able to see him during the flight and check on him regularly.’

Since arrival in Chengdu, Gao Gao has been spending 30 days in quarantine before a well earned retirement. Kathy added: ‘As a keeper you can’t help but feel an emotional connection to the animals in your care, and especially Gao Gao who has been with us for so many years. We’ve lost our hearts to him, so we feel the emotional side of it, but he’s coming back to his home and that’s an important aspect of our work.’

For more information on San Diego Zoo’s conservation efforts, visit

For more information on Cathay Pacific Cargo’s Live Animal LIFT product, click here