For the past decade and a half, Adelaide Zoo’s two giant pandas have assumed a variety of guises in the public imagination.

They have been, among other things, star attractions, political footballs, cuddly cohabitants, prospective parents, tourism drawcards, diplomatic envoys, and — occasionally but most notably — makers of mirth and breakers of hearts.

Those last two roles are in reference to the annual media circus that has accompanied Wang Wang and Fu Ni’s very brief breeding window, which has felt at times like groundhog day.

Wang Wang and Fu Ni have become much-loved over the last 15 years.(ABC News)

Around September or October each year, the venue’s keepers have been in the habit of holding their collective breath in the hope of hearing the pitter-patter of tiny paws.

Perhaps the expectations that the pandas — who are coming to the end of a 15-year stay in South Australia — would produce offspring have been unfairly high. After all, their fertility window is, according to experts, a mere 36 hours.

But while the absence of a cub has led some to question Wang Wang and Fu Ni’s love for one another, Adelaide Zoo is adamant that the pandas’ love affair with the public has been ardent — fulfilling predictions made prior to their arrival.

“Having giant pandas at the Adelaide Zoo will bring thousands upon thousands of people to Adelaide,” said then-foreign minister Alexander Downer around the time he helped broker the deal with China.

Wang Wang and Fu Ni have become a major attraction at Adelaide Zoo.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

Similar enthusiasm greeted news this week that, while Wang Wang and Fu Ni would soon be returning home, another two pandas almost of breeding age would replace them.

“We receive a lot of interstate visitors who come just to see the pandas, and a lot of people from New Zealand,” Zoos SA CEO Elaine Bensted said on Monday.

“They are really significant from a tourism perspective.”

‘The big story of the summer’

Adelaide’s original acquisition of its gentle giants occurred against a backdrop of political, but bipartisan, fanfare.

“When you’re talking about billions of dollars of resource contracts and you’re talking about tens of thousands of students, it’s also important to find in the relationship, the warmth and exhilaration that can come from the temporary residence of such lovely creatures,” said then-prime minister John Howard in 2007.

Two years later Wang Wang and Fu Ni, who were born at China’s Wolong Giant Panda Research Centre, arrived Down Under and were lionised from the get-go.

Mr Howard’s successor Kevin Rudd was equally effusive about the prospect of “panda-monium”, expressing confidence that Adelaide Zoo’s new guests would “enjoy a happy sojourn in Australia”.

As cute as Wang Wang and Fu Ni may be, panda politics can be a highly-contested business.

“Panda diplomacy” is a term used to describe the way the animals are used by China to “shape the country’s image as a benevolent superpower”.

This week Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s visit to Adelaide Zoo was met with a mixed reception, with anti-Chinese Communist Party demonstrators voicing human rights concerns.

For most visitors to the zoo, however, it’s not panda diplomacy but panda intimacy that has most likely been front of mind.

The annual panda breeding season has perennially raised hopes of a pregnancy, with zookeepers and vets each year closely monitoring for signs that the breeding window was imminent. (For those interested, indicators include tree-climbing, pacing and scent-marking.)

The zoo flew in reproductive specialists from China, enlisted the help of local experts to track ovulation, carried out artificial inseminations, and even resorted to panda whisperers, sex toys and “panda porn” — but it was all to no avail.

For fans of the film Anchorman, it probably sounds like a case of life imitating art, because it was reminiscent of a key storyline in which a panda at San Diego Zoo falls pregnant.

“This is the big story of the summer,” one of the characters tells the news team amid rumours of an imminent birth, with reporters assigned to “panda watch”.

Main character Ron Burgundy reads a news story about pandas, in a scene from the movie Anchorman.(YouTube: Paramount Picture)

‘Like returning royalty’

Despite the upcoming departures of Wang Wang and Fu Ni, Adelaideans are likely to remain on “panda watch” for a good while yet.

“We will provide a new pair of equally beautiful, lovely and adorable pandas to the Adelaide Zoo,” Chinese Premier Li Qiang declared on Sunday.

“I’m sure they will be loved and taken good care of by the people of Adelaide.”

Foreign Minister Penny Wong with China’s Premier Li Qiang and SA Premier Peter Malinauskas at Adelaide Zoo on Sunday.(AAP Image: Asanka Ratnayake)

The cost of the creatures has been questioned by some, but SA’s premier Peter Malinauskas has insisted there’ll be bang for buck.

He said the South Australian government contribution to the cost of keeping pandas in Adelaide was “somewhere in the order of $1 million” a year, but they “do bring an economic benefit for the state”.

“It is a privilege that we’re home to them,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide.

“We didn’t want to end up in a situation where we had quite a professional and outstanding panda enclosure and no pandas within it.”

Zoos SA expressed relief that a deal had been struck to replace Wang Wang and Fu Ni with another “male and female, with the aim of future breeding”.

“It’s likely the pair that come will be not quite of breeding age, because they need to take that transition to the southern hemisphere,” CEO Elaine Bensted said.

Giant panda Fu Ni inspects a Christmas present in 2017.(ABC News: Sarah Hancock)

While Wang Wang and Fu Ni “will go back to one of the panda bases” in China, they’ll hardly be put out to pasture.

“The pandas there are very well looked after, but particularly those that have been overseas,” Ms Bensted said.

“They are treated a little bit like returning royalty.”