BERLIN (AP) — The first giant pandas born in Germany celebrated their fourth birthday Thursday as the Berlin Zoo prepares to send them to China, a journey that was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pit and Paule, who also are known by the Chinese names Meng Xiang und Meng Yuan, have been a star attraction at the zoo since their birth in 2019. On Thursday, keepers presented them with an ice cake made with apples, carrots and beetroot, and a side serving of snow.

While China for decades gifted friendly nations with its unofficial mascot as part of a policy of “panda diplomacy,″ the country now loans pandas to zoos on commercial terms. Pit and Paule's parents, Jiao Qing and Meng Meng, arrived in Berlin in 2017.

Florian Sicks, the zoo's curator for mammals, said the young pandas belong to China and its Chengdu Panda Base, and officials hope the pair will travel there soon.

“As a rule, this happens at age 2 or 3,” Sicks said. “Because of the pandemic, it was delayed a bit so that they are now celebrating their fourth birthday here, which we of course are very, very happy about. But at the moment, we assume that this will probably be the last birthday the two of them will celebrate here in Berlin.”

Giant pandas have difficulty breeding and births are particularly welcomed. There are about 1,800 pandas living in the wild in China and a few hundred in captivity worldwide.

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