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On February 21, after a week of feasting on her favorite treats that included a multi-tiered ice cake, giant panda Bao Bao started preparing for her one-way journey to China. The National Zoo resident began the morning with a hearty breakfast comprising 17 pounds (8 kg) of bamboo and 5.4 pounds (2.4 kg) of leaf eater biscuits, before heading out for some fresh air. Shortly after, she was put inside a custom-made, four-by-six, steel travel crate and transported to the Washington Dulles International Airport.
Bao Bao, who was accompanied by her keeper, Marty Dearie and zoo veterinarian Katharine Hope, boarded a specially retrofitted FedEx 777F plane that whisked her away to her new life, almost 8,500 miles away. During the 16-hour flight, the three-year-old giant panda happily munched her way through a steady supply of treats that included 55 pounds of bamboo, two pounds of apples, two bags of leaf eater biscuits, and two pounds of cooked sweet potatoes.
Upon landing, the trio headed to Bao Bao’s new home, the Dujiangyan Panda Center in Southwest China. After a quick examination, the giant panda was taken to the center’s quarantine area where she will remain for a month. Once center experts are assured she poses no health risk to the other giant panda residents, Bao Bao will go on display to the public. At age five, Bao Bao will enter the center’s breeding program and hopefully help the vulnerable giant panda population by giving birth to a cub or two.
Bao Bao, whose name means precious’ or ‘treasure’ in Chinese, is part of the cooperative breeding partnership between the National Zoo and the China Wildlife Conservation Association. Under the agreement, all giant pandas born at the zoo have to be returned to China to prepare them for breeding by age four.
Though separating the young cub from her family may seem cruel, zoo officials say Bao Bao is unlikely to miss them. That’s because, in the wild, giant pandas typically spend between 18 months and two years with their mothers before leaving to lead a solitary life. Zoo-born Bao Bao has followed a similar path and been living in her own enclosure since March 2015. Given that adult males are not involved in raising their cubs, she will not miss her father, National Zoo resident Tian Tian, either. And if losing this adorable giant panda isn’t sad enough for zoo visitors, officials say her little brother, Bei Bei, who was born in August 2015, will also move to China before he turns four. Hopefully, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang will have another cub before that happens!