Special Delivery: National Zoo's Panda Cub Leaves Zoo, Heads to China

Keepers have packed Bao Bao's favorite foods, including bamboo, apples and sweet potatoes

The National Zoo in Washington said a final goodbye to its panda cub Bao Bao.

The zoo packed up the American-born panda for a one-way flight Tuesday to China, where the 3-year-old eventually will join a panda breeding program. 

Bao Bao left the zoo Tuesday morning and will fly from Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia to Chengdu, China, Tuesday afternoon. Fans will be able to watch her departure from the zoo and airport on the zoo's Facebook page.

The cub won't have to worry about finding overhead bin space or dealing with a talkative seatmate on the 16-hour, nonstop flight. She'll be the only panda on the FedEx Panda Express, traveling with a keeper and a veterinarian. 

In preparation for the trip, keepers had a packing list of Bao Bao's favorite foods including: 55 pounds of bamboo, 5 pounds of apples and 2 pounds of sweet potatoes.

"Most of the flight, we hope she's going to eat," said panda keeper Marty Dearie, who will travel with Bao Bao to China and says pandas spend 13 to 16 hours a day eating.

Once Bao Bao arrives in Chengdu, China, she'll be driven to her new home, one of the bases run by the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda. Dearie will briefly remain with her while she gets adjusted. In time, when she reaches sexual maturity, between 5 and 6 years old, she'll become part of a panda breeding program. The National Zoo says Bao Bao is traveling now because it's better for pandas to travel in the winter months when it is cool.

Bao Bao delighted the zoo and panda fans when she was born Aug. 23, 2013. Her mother, Mei Xiang, gave birth to her first cub, Tai Shan, in 2005, but then failed to get pregnant for years. Then, a cub born in 2012 didn't survive.

With Bao Bao's departure, the National Zoo will have three remaining pandas. The zoo's two adult pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, arrived on loan in 2000 but belong to China, as do any cubs they have. The pair's first cub, Tai Shan, returned to China in 2010. Their third cub, Bao Bao's younger brother, Bei Bei, was born in 2015 and will remain at the zoo for now.

A total of four U.S. zoos have pandas that are on loan from China. Pandas born in the United States return to China, generally by age 4. With Bao Bao's departure, there will be a dozen pandas remaining in the United States: four in Atlanta, three in Washington, three in San Diego and two in Memphis, Tennessee.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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