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National Zoo panda Bao Bao begins journey to China

Posted at 8:20 AM, Feb 16, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-21 12:29:13-05

President Donald Trump vowed to get tough on China during the 2016 campaign, but one key aspect of US-China diplomacy is proceeding as normal: The Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s panda Bao Bao, 3, is moving to Chengdu, China, on February 21.

Panda Mei Xiang gave birth to Bao Bao on August 23, 2013, in what turned out to be a successful birth following the death of her 6-day-old panda cub one year earlier. After an online vote, the 100-day old cub was named “Bao Bao,” which translates as “precious” or “treasure.” Visitors flocked to the National Zoo in Northwest Washington to get a glimpse of the cub when she made her public debut in January 2014.

And while Bao Bao is leaving, the National Zoo still features her brother, Bei Bei, age 1, and panda parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian.

Panda Prep

But Bao Bao was always destined to return to her ancestral home due to a longstanding agreement between China and the US. The National Zoo has been preparing for her departure since the day she was born.

“We’ve been planning for this from the moment she was born. You know, as soon as she hit the ground, we all knew, she’s going to be going to China at some point. So we started training her and doing all the things we would need to do to help make her trip better,” National Zoo animal keeper Marty Dearie told CNN.

Bao Bao, who has been living separately from her mother, as pandas do in the wild, for nearly two years, underwent a full veterinary exam last week ahead of her flight to China.

“We have no concerns, everything seems pretty normal right now, but we just like to make sure before we send them, especially since it’s such a long flight,” Dearie said.

Bao Bao will fly nonstop from Dulles, Virginia, to Chengdu, China, in a large crate aboard the custom-decaled “FedEx Panda Express” 777F aircraft. She will be accompanied by a keeper and a veterinarian.

Keepers have been getting Bao Bao accustomed to her traveling crate over the past few weeks.

“The panda team will continuously monitor Bao Bao during the trip and will travel with a supply of her favorite treats, including bamboo, apples, pears, cooked sweet potatoes and water,” the Zoo said in a statement.

The giant panda was removed from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of endangered species in September 2016. Thanks to an increase in available habitat, the giant panda population rose 17% from 2004 to 2014, leading to the downgrade from endangered to vulnerable.

Bao Bao will soon do her part, entering a breeding program in Chengdu when she reaches the age of 5 or 6.

“It is hard, but we know that we’re sending her back to be part of the breeding program and to make more baby pandas,” Dr. Brandie Smith, senior curator of giant pandas at the National Zoo, told ABC News when Bao Bao was a cub. “So, I think a lot parents can relate, from the moment our kids are born, we train them to go off and succeed on their own. So, that’s what we’re doing for Bao Bao.”

Panda Diplomacy

The zoo first received a state gift of two pandas from China in 1972, following President Richard Nixon’s visit, and has participated in panda loans and exchanges ever since as a gesture of good will.

Under the agreement, the offspring of the gifted pandas belong to China and must return by age 4.

Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai once called Bao Bao the second Chinese ambassador in Washington, calling the panda a “clear envoy of China-US friendship.”

“China and the United States collaborate closely in scientific research about and conservation of giant pandas … Because it’s very difficult for giant pandas to breed naturally, Chinese and Americans have been working on breeding them through artificial insemination,” Tiankai wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.

Bye Bye, Bao Bao

Starting Thursday, the zoo is saying farewell to Bao Bao with a series of goodbye events.

Chinese embassy chefs will kick off the festivities with a dumpling party for zoo visitors and Bao Bao Thursday morning.

Visitors can watch Bao Bao play with her favorite enrichment items during several demonstrations, and keepers will answer questions about the species.

On Saturday, Sunday and Monday, she’ll eat a heart-shaped ice cake.

Can’t make it to Washington? No problem. Bao Bao’s birth was broadcast live online on the zoo’s Panda Cams, so it’s only fitting that the Panda Cam will be up and rolling for the daily events.

The festivities culminate on Tuesday when Bao Bao departs Washington. While the Zoo will be closed to the public, her Zoo departure and Dulles Airport arrival will be available to view on Facebook Live.