WASHINGTON — Bao Bao, born pink, blind and hairless and who has become a beloved animal of the National Zoo, will be leaving for China this winter.
The zoo has an agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association under which all panda cubs born at the zoo will move to China by the time they turn 4.
Bao Bao turns 4 on Aug. 23. The zoo said it is not making the actual departure date public “for the safety and security of Bao Bao and our staff.”
She is the first surviving cub born at the zoo since 2005 and the second of three surviving cubs of her parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian.
“Well, we’ve always known she was going to leave. … We are a little sad but excited for her,” said Brooke O’Toole, a D.C. resident and zoo member.
O’Toole brings her two children to the zoo frequently. Her 3-year-old daughter, Eloise, grew up with the zoo and is the same age as Bao Bao.
“From our window you could see the zoo lights and hear the lions roar,” O’Toole said, referring to living in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, which is near the zoo. “We love the Zoo, it [is] a nice gift from D.C. for the people.”
There will be a four-day farewell event from Feb. 16 to Feb. 20, during which Bao Bao will receive treats twice a day, have her own 24/7 panda cam and have an ice cake party.
O’Toole said she wanted to come see Bao Bao before the crowds. She remembered coming to the first viewing of Bao Bao with Eloise “all bundled up” in January 2014.
“Bao Bao is very special to us at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo,” Brandie Smith, the zoo’s associate director of animal care sciences, said in a statement. “We are sad to see her go, but excited for the contributions she is going to continue to make to the global giant panda population.”
The giant panda has “captured the hearts of people all over the world who watched her grow up on the panda cams, and she has been an ambassador for conservation,” Smith said.
Zoo visitor Candice Greaux, of Alexandria, Virginia, did not know that Bao Bao was leaving. While the panda will be missed, she said it “will ultimately be for the best.”
“It’s good to increase the diversity of the panda population in the world, since it is difficult for them to give birth,” Greaux said.
Bao Bao’s older brother Tai Shan, nicknamed “Butterstick,” journeyed to China in 2010 and her younger sister Bei Bei, the zoo’s baby panda, turned 1 over the summer.
Laura McCorkel, an Arizona resident visiting her son in D.C., said China should have enough access to panda’s in their own country for breeding.
“It’s kind of sad to break up a family. … It’s heart-wrenching,” McCorkel said.
Panda International’s website says there are about 300 giant pandas in captivity around the world.
In China, a 2014 survey found 1,864 pandas living in the wild, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. That number represents a 17 percent increase in the animals over a decade, the fund said.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature in September downgraded the extinction risk for pandas from “endangered” to “vulnerable.”