Bao Bao, a three-year-old giant panda who has called the Smithsonian’s national zoo in Washington home since her birth in 2013, departed from Dulles airport this afternoon on a one-way trip to China to join a panda breeding program .
China’s ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai was at the zoo to receive the panda, who will travel with a keeper and veterinarian for company on the 16-hour nonstop flight to Chengdu. Bao Bao’s journey began in a crate loaded onto a Fedex truck also travels with a supply of snacks including 55lbs (25kg) of bamboo, 5lbs (2kg) of apples and 2lbs (1kg) of sweet potatoes.
Bao Bao, whose personality is described as “very independent”, like a domestic cat, was then loaded aboard a specially chartered FedEx plane – the “Panda Express”– in a large box marked “one panda”. The plane departed around 2pm, an event covered on live TV and on the zoo’s Facebook page.
“Most of the flight, we hope she’s going to eat,” panda keeper and travel companion Marty Dearie told the Associated Press. Dearie added that pandas like to spend 13-16 hours a day eating. The national zoo explained that Bao Bao is traveling now because it’s better for pandas to travel in the winter months, when it is cool.
Once the cub arrives in China, she’ll be driven to her new home, one of the bases run by the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda.
Bao Bao, who currently weighs around 200lbs (90kg), has been a central attraction at the national zoo since her birth in August 2013. Her departure leaves the zoo with three remaining pandas.
Zoo director Dennis Kelly called Bao Bao’s departure a “really bittersweet day” for the institution. “While it represents a huge success, we’ve become so fond of Bao Bao,” he told the Washington Post. “We’re going to miss her so much.”
Bao Bao’s mother, Mei Xiang, gave birth to her first cub, Tai Shan, in 2005. That cub was given to China five years later. Under an agreement forged in the Nixon era, all pandas leased to the US by China still belong to Beijing, and foreign-born panda cubs, instilled with Chinese panda habits and behaviors, are generally sent there at around four years old to join a breeding program.
After Tai Shan’s birth, Mei Xiang failed to conceive for seven years. A cub born a year before Bao Bao in 2012 did not survive. Then came Bao Bao. Finally, a third cub, Bao Bao’s younger brother Bei Bei, was born in 2015 and will remain at the zoo along with the parents, mother Mei Xiang and father Tian Tian. The two adults arrived on loan in 2000.
Laurie Thompson, the assistant curator of giant pandas at the zoo, said keepers have been preparing Bao Bao to leave for China since she was born. “We’re ready. We’ve done our part, and we’re ready to send her to China so she can have her own babies someday,” Thompson said.
The departure of Bao Bao continues a tradition that began when China gave the national zoo a pair of pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, following Richard Nixon’s historic trip to the country in 1972. The pair had five cubs, but none survived. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are the zoo’s second panda pair. Under the terms of the agreement, the US pays China $10m for a renewable 10-year lease on the couple.
A total of four US zoos have pandas on loan from China. In addition to Bao Bao, the US sent two female twin pandas, Mei Lun and Mei Huan, from Atlanta zoo to China in November last year. That leaves a dozen pandas remaining in the US: four in Atlanta, three in Washington, three in San Diego and two in Memphis.
The Atlanta family includes another pair of twins, five months old, named Ya Lun and Xi Lun. The pair are the sixth and seventh offspring of Lun Lun and Yang Yang. San Diego, hosts a breeding pair, Bai Yun and Gao Gao, and a single offspring Xiao Liwu, born in 2012.
Memphis is home to “Ya Ya”, a 16 year old female, and Le Le, a 19-year-old male. The pair have never successfully reproduced, something notoriously problematic for pandas – females are only fertile for between 24 and 72 hours in any given year, while males often lack ardor.