Washington is saying its farewells to Bao Bao, the beloved giant panda that leaves the Smithsonian’s National Zoo on February 21. Next stop: China.

The 3-year-old has enthralled Washingtonians — and panda lovers the world over — thanks in large part to the zoo’s “panda cams,” on-site cameras that have captured the panda’s movements ever since her birth in August 2013.

People, many wearing panda-themed hats, lined up along fence and watching (© The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Visitors get a glimpse of Bao Bao at the National Zoo before she leaves for China. (© The Washington Post via Getty Images)

All panda cubs born at the National Zoo must depart to live in China by age 4. That is part of the breeding-program agreement the zoo has with the China Wildlife Conservation Association. In China, giant pandas participate in the breeding program when they reach sexual maturity between 5 and 6 years old.

Today, giant pandas are listed as “vulnerable” by the international body that tracks endangered species. The listing is an improvement over the pandas’ previous “endangered” status. Still, only 1,800 giant pandas remain in the wild, and threats remain, including habitat loss.

Scientists in China are beginning to reintroduce pandas born in human care to the wild. It is possible that Bao Bao’s offspring or other descendants will be reintroduced to the wild.

Special cargo

A keeper and a veterinarian from the National Zoo will accompany Bao Bao on her flight to Chengdu, China, via a specially designed “FedEx Panda Express,” a custom-decorated 777F aircraft.

On board: 25 kilograms of bamboo, 0.90 kilograms of apples, two bags of leaf-eater biscuits, 0.90 kilograms of cooked sweet potatoes and 113 liters of water.

Keepers have spent the last few months getting Bao Bao accustomed to the crate that she will travel in.

Bao Bao, whose name means “treasure,” will live at one of the bases operated by the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda.

Before her departure, the Embassy of China on February 16 served dumplings to Bao Bao and panda fans at the zoo. In northern China, dumplings are a popular food for bidding farewell to loved ones before they leave home. The shape of dumplings resembles an ancient Chinese currency, the “yuan bao,” and represents prosperity.

A history of cooperative conservation

Giant pandas first came to the National Zoo in 1972 when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai gave Ling-Ling (a female) and Hsing-Hsing (a male) to President and Mrs. Richard Nixon.

Since then, scientists at the zoo and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute have worked with their Chinese counterparts to learn about panda breeding, pregnancy and cub development.

The zoo’s second (and current) pair of pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, are on loan. In exchange, the zoo contributes funds and expertise toward conservation efforts in China.

Bao Bao’s older brother, Tai Shan, was born at the National Zoo in 2005 and has been in China since 2010. Her younger brother, Bei Bei, turns 2 years old in August and will likewise depart the National Zoo and travel to China by age 4.