Bao Bao says 'bittersweet' bye bye to US

By Chen Weihua and Zhao Huanxin in Washington | China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-02-22 12:10
Bao Bao says 'bittersweet' bye bye to US

For Dennis Kelly, director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo, seeing giant panda Bao Bao leaving for China on Tuesday was "bittersweet."

Bao Bao, a 3-and-a-half-year-old female giant panda at the zoo, left Washington Dulles International Airport for China on Tuesday afternoon, aboard a FedEx Panda Express 777F airplane.

Accompanying her on her 16-hour trip were a keeper and a veterinarian, bearing bamboo, apples, leafeater biscuits and cooked potatoes, all Bao Bao's favorite treats.

"(It is) very, very bittersweet for us today to see her go," Kelly said at the airport, shortly before Bao Bao's departure.

Bao Bao was only the second surviving cub born at the zoo in 45 years since giant pandas Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing arrived at the zoo in April 1972, less than two months after President Richard Nixon's historic trip to China.

Tai Shan, the first surviving cub born at the zoo in 2005, went to China in early 2010.

"That's how hard it is," Kelly said. "It's my hope, it's my dream that Bao Bao's offspring, her descendants will be once reintroduced back into the wild in China."

Starting last September, giant pandas have been listed as "vulnerable" instead of "endangered" in the wild by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. There are an estimated 1,800 giant pandas in the wild and another 400 in captivity.

Bao Bao, which means precious treasure in Chinese, was born on Aug 23, 2013 through artificial insemination. At her naming ceremony when she turned 100 days old, China's first lady Peng Liyuan and then US first lady Michelle Obama sent video greetings.

Under a bilateral agreement between the National Zoo and China, panda cubs born at the zoo to pandas on loan from China also belong to China and have to be moved to China before they reach the age of four to join the breeding program.

The National Zoo has held 10 days of online and onsite celebratory activities for people to say goodbye and send their best wishes to Bao Bao. Keepers and scientists at the zoo shared their knowledge and fond memories of giant pandas, in particular Bao Bao, whom they described as "very independent".

"I think she will be fine. First class on the plane - Bao Bao definitely deserves it," Henry Miller from South Carolina said of the special flight on the custom-decaled 777F.

"I've been to the panda house one time before, and it is just breathtaking," he added.

Miller and his wife came to the zoo to bid farewell to the panda a day before the scheduled departure. He said that given the very small number of this "wonderful natural treasure", the conservation efforts in China are noteworthy and laudable.

"If I have a chance to visit China, my first stop will be seeing Bao Bao's new home," Miller said.

Karen Wille, from Arlington, Virginia, is one of the hardcore panda fans who visit giant pandas at the National Zoo almost every week.

Having visited Tai Shan in China, Wille said she is sure that Bao Bao will be doing fine there. "They have wonderful people there, the staff and keepers. I know Bao Bao is going to love it," she told China Daily.

Shellie Pick, an animal keeper at the zoo, said she and her colleagues have spent several weeks acclimating Bao Bao to a specially designed travel crate daily and rewarded her with special treats like honey water, so that she will fly to China in a space that is familiar and positive to her.

"I hope to visit her in the future in China," she said.

Before being transferred to the airport, Bao Bao had her breakfast of bamboo in front of a host of peering cameras from the media. She climbed a tree for a while and then laid prostrate and fell asleep on the ground of the habitat, seemingly unaware of her imminent departure from her parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian.

"I will be with her all the time," said Marty Dearie, the keeper who is accompanying Bao Bao to Chengdu. "I'll provide her with food, companionship - all the things I'll do as a keeper here at the zoo, just instead inside of an airplane."

After Bao Bao's departure, the National Zoo will still house three giant pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, and their 18-month-old male cub, Bei Bei.

When 200-pound Bao Bao arrives in Chengdu, around 7 pm Beijing time on Wednesday, she will be greeted by her new keepers from the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda. They will drive her to nearby Dujiangyan Panda Base where she is expected to stay in quarantine for about 30 days.

It is not sure if Bao Bao will remain at Dujiangyan once the quarantine period has ended. Bao Bao will enter the giant panda breeding program when she reaches sexual maturity at between five and six years old.

Yuan Yuan contributed to this story.


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