Panda plane takes off, Bao Bao's journey to China begins

After leaving her home at the Smithsonian National Zoo, giant panda Bao Bao is carefully loaded onto a plane and flown to her new home in China under a long-standing breeding and research programme commitment.
Giant panda Bao Bao in her outdoor habitat at the Smithsonian's National Zoo on Feb 21, 2017, in Washington, DC.
Giant panda Bao Bao in her outdoor habitat at the Smithsonian's National Zoo on Feb 21, 2017, in Washington, DC.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON, DC (REUTERS) - Bao Bao, who rose to fame while growing up on live video at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, was put onto a plane to China on Tuesday (Feb 21), under a long-standing breeding and research programme.

The three-year-old giant panda took off on a Boeing 777F freighter aircraft, customized with an image of a giant panda on its side, from Dulles International Airport in Virginia for Chengdu, the capital of China's Sichuan province.

The panda was born at the zoo on Aug 23, 2013, to mother Mei Xiang and father Tian Tian, who were loaned to the zoo as part of an agreement with the Chinese Wildlife Conservation Association.

Under the deal, all cubs born at the National Zoo must move to China by the time they reach four years old for breeding and research.

"It's very bittersweet for us at the National Zoo to see her go. But it's my hope, it's my dream that Bao Bao's offspring, her descendants will be once reintroduced (sic) back into the wild in China," said Mr Dennis Kelly, director of the National Zoo.

The National Zoo received its first pair of giant pandas in 1972 as a gift from the Chinese government to commemorate President Richard Nixon's landmark visit to China.

That pair, female Ling-Ling and male Hsing-Hsing, lived at the zoo for more than 20 years, but produced no surviving cubs.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian produced their first surviving cub on July 9, 2005, named Tai Shan, who left for China's Wolong Nature Reserve some four years later.

Bao Bao drew an international audience as the star of the zoo "panda cam", which documented her birth and childhood for millions of fans worldwide.

Admirers have included former first lady Michelle Obama, who sent a message to the giant panda cub on the day she was born.

In the week leading up to her departure, fans were allowed to observe Bao Bao as she was plied with her favourite treats, including ice cakes made of frozen fruit juices and vegetables.

Bao Bao's younger brother, Bei Bei, and parents will remain at the zoo as part of its breeding programme, which runs until December 2020.