Bittersweet: National Zoo’s panda Bao Bao departs for China

WASHINGTON — After delighting National Zoo visitors for three years, giant panda Bao Bao has departed for her new home in China where conservationists hope she will eventually find a mate and have a cub of her own one day. 

Bao Bao left Dulles International Airport just before 2 p.m. aboard a FedEx cargo plane decorated with an image of a panda munching on bamboo. She’ll touch down in Chengdu on Wednesday and will begin a 30-day quarantine.

The panda, whose name means “precious” or “treasure,” was given a send-off worthy of royalty.

A crowd of reporters, photographers and camera crews captured her grand exit tracking every move from her morning snacks at the zoo, to her 800-pound steel travel crate being hoisted into the belly of the plane on the tarmac.

A police escort accompanied the panda as she traveled by truck to the airport.

The president of FedEx attended a ceremony at the airport along with a Chinese government official from the embassy in D.C. China’s ambassador to the United States joined a ceremony earlier at the zoo.

Zoo Director Dennis Kelly called Bao Bao a symbol of the herculean efforts to conserve the species.

“Today marks another milestone in our race to save giant pandas from extinction. Every birth is so important,” Kelly said.

He hopes that she’ll find a mate in China and that her descendants will one day be returned to the wild.

Bao Bao was the second surviving cub born to parents Mei Xiang and Tian Tian at the zoo and represented years of work by zoo staff, who were emotional as they said goodbye at the panda exhibit Tuesday morning. Mei Xiang has given birth to two other surviving cubs: Tai Shan returned to China in 2010 and Bei Bei remains at the zoo.

“It’s bittersweet,” said animal keeper Shellie Pick. “Watching her grow up has been the treat of my career. It’s sad to see her go.”

The keepers walked slowly along side the travel crate as it was pulled away by a forklift at the zoo.

A special cargo plane carrying the National Zoo's giant panda Bao Bao departs from Dulles International Airport on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. The flight will travel 16 hours to Chengdu, China. (Courtesy NBC Washington)
A special cargo plane carrying the National Zoo’s giant panda Bao Bao departs from Dulles International Airport on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. The flight will travel 16 hours to Chengdu, China. (Courtesy NBC Washington)
A special cargo plane carrying the National Zoo's giant panda Bao Bao departs from Dulles International Airport on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. The flight will travel 16 hours to Chengdu, China. (Courtesy NBC Washington)
A special cargo plane carrying the National Zoo’s giant panda Bao Bao departs from Dulles International Airport on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. The flight will travel 16 hours to Chengdu, China. (Courtesy NBC Washington)
A special cargo plane carrying the National Zoo's giant panda Bao Bao departs from Dulles International Airport on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. The flight will travel 16 hours to Chengdu, China. (Courtesy NBC Washington)
A special cargo plane carrying the National Zoo’s giant panda Bao Bao departs from Dulles International Airport on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. The flight will travel 16 hours to Chengdu, China. (Courtesy NBC Washington)
(Courtesy NBC Washington)
FedEx's "Panda Team" awaits for Bao Bao at Dulles International Airport on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2107. The shipping company will fly the National Zoo-born giant panda in her own cargo plane, with a special panda decal, to Chengdu, China. Bao Bao will eventually join a breeding program. (WTOP/Kristi King)
FedEx’s “Panda Team” awaits for Bao Bao at Dulles International Airport on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2107. The shipping company will fly the National Zoo-born giant panda in her own cargo plane, with a special panda decal, to Chengdu, China. Bao Bao will eventually join a breeding program. (WTOP/Kristi King)
(WTOP/Kristi King)
Giant panda Bao Bao travels by a FedEx truck to Dulles International Airport, where she will board a cargo plane bound for China on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. (Courtesy NBC Washington)
Giant panda Bao Bao travels by a FedEx truck to Dulles International Airport, where she will board a cargo plane bound for China on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. (Courtesy NBC Washington)
Giant panda Bao Bao travels by a FedEx truck to Dulles International Airport, where she will board a cargo plane bound for China on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. (Courtesy NBC Washington)
Giant panda Bao Bao travels by a FedEx truck to Dulles International Airport, where she will board a cargo plane bound for China on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. (Courtesy NBC Washington)
Giant panda Bao Bao is loaded into a crate for her trip to Dulles International Airport at the National Zoo Tuesday morning. She'll take a 16-hour flight to Chengdu, where she'll spend 30 days in quarantine. She'll eventually join a breeding program in China. (WTOP/Nick Iannelli)
Giant panda Bao Bao is loaded into a crate for her trip to Dulles International Airport at the National Zoo Tuesday morning. She’ll take a 16-hour flight to Chengdu, where she’ll spend 30 days in quarantine. She’ll eventually join a breeding program in China. (WTOP/Nick Iannelli)
(WTOP/Nick Iannelli)
(WTOP/Nick Iannelli)
Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai accepts postcards and wellwishes for Bao Bao at the National Zoo on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. The giant panda, born at the zoo in 2013, is heading to China where she wil eventually join a breeding program. (WTOP/Nick Iannelli)
Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai accepts postcards and wellwishes for Bao Bao at the National Zoo on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. The giant panda, born at the zoo in 2013, is heading to China where she will eventually join a breeding program. (WTOP/Nick Iannelli)
Giant panda Bao Bao enjoys some bamboo during her final hours at the National Zoo. She was set to depart for China on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. (WTOP/Ginger Whitaker)
Giant panda Bao Bao enjoys some bamboo during her final hours at the National Zoo. She was set to depart for China on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. (WTOP/Ginger Whitaker)
Giant panda Bao Bao enjoys some bamboo during her final hours at the National Zoo. She was set to depart for China on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. (WTOP/Ginger Whitaker)
Giant panda Bao Bao enjoys some bamboo during her final hours at the National Zoo. She was set to depart for China on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. (WTOP/Ginger Whitaker)
Bao Bao munches on a snack on the day of her departure. (WTOP/Jamie Forzato)
Bao Bao munches on a snack on the day of her departure. (WTOP/Jamie Forzato)
Bao Bao departs D.C.'s National Zoo on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. (WTOP/Jamie Forzato)
Bao Bao departs D.C.’s National Zoo on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. (WTOP/Jamie Forzato)
Bao Bao gazes off into her future. (WTOP/Jamie Forzato)
Bao Bao spends her final hours at D.C.’s National Zoo. (WTOP/Jamie Forzato)
Bao Bao clowning around on her last day at D.C.'s National Zoo. (WTOP/Nick Iannelli)
Bao Bao clowns around on her last day at D.C.’s National Zoo. (WTOP/Nick Iannelli)
While there will be no movie during Bao Bao's 16-hour flight, she will enjoy plenty of her favorite snacks. (Courtesy Smithsonian National Zoo)
While there will be no movie during Bao Bao’s 16-hour flight, she will enjoy plenty of her favorite snacks. (Courtesy Smithsonian National Zoo)
Pandas at the National Zoo are moved to China by the time they are four years old. Bao Bao will be turning four in August. (WTOP / Kathy Stewart)
Pandas at the National Zoo are moved to China by the time they are four years old. Bao Bao will be turning four in August. (WTOP / Kathy Stewart)
Bao Bao
Remember Bao Bao as a cub? In this Aug. 23, 2014 file photo, panda cub Bao Bao hangs from a tree in her habitat at the National Zoo in D.C. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
Giant panda Bao Bao will arrive in Chengdu, China on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
(1/22)
A special cargo plane carrying the National Zoo's giant panda Bao Bao departs from Dulles International Airport on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. The flight will travel 16 hours to Chengdu, China. (Courtesy NBC Washington)
A special cargo plane carrying the National Zoo's giant panda Bao Bao departs from Dulles International Airport on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. The flight will travel 16 hours to Chengdu, China. (Courtesy NBC Washington)
A special cargo plane carrying the National Zoo's giant panda Bao Bao departs from Dulles International Airport on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. The flight will travel 16 hours to Chengdu, China. (Courtesy NBC Washington)
FedEx's "Panda Team" awaits for Bao Bao at Dulles International Airport on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2107. The shipping company will fly the National Zoo-born giant panda in her own cargo plane, with a special panda decal, to Chengdu, China. Bao Bao will eventually join a breeding program. (WTOP/Kristi King)
Giant panda Bao Bao travels by a FedEx truck to Dulles International Airport, where she will board a cargo plane bound for China on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. (Courtesy NBC Washington)
Giant panda Bao Bao travels by a FedEx truck to Dulles International Airport, where she will board a cargo plane bound for China on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. (Courtesy NBC Washington)
Giant panda Bao Bao is loaded into a crate for her trip to Dulles International Airport at the National Zoo Tuesday morning. She'll take a 16-hour flight to Chengdu, where she'll spend 30 days in quarantine. She'll eventually join a breeding program in China. (WTOP/Nick Iannelli)
Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai accepts postcards and wellwishes for Bao Bao at the National Zoo on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. The giant panda, born at the zoo in 2013, is heading to China where she wil eventually join a breeding program. (WTOP/Nick Iannelli)
Giant panda Bao Bao enjoys some bamboo during her final hours at the National Zoo. She was set to depart for China on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. (WTOP/Ginger Whitaker)
Giant panda Bao Bao enjoys some bamboo during her final hours at the National Zoo. She was set to depart for China on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. (WTOP/Ginger Whitaker)
Bao Bao munches on a snack on the day of her departure. (WTOP/Jamie Forzato)
Bao Bao departs D.C.'s National Zoo on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. (WTOP/Jamie Forzato)
Bao Bao gazes off into her future. (WTOP/Jamie Forzato)
Bao Bao clowning around on her last day at D.C.'s National Zoo. (WTOP/Nick Iannelli)
While there will be no movie during Bao Bao's 16-hour flight, she will enjoy plenty of her favorite snacks. (Courtesy Smithsonian National Zoo)
Pandas at the National Zoo are moved to China by the time they are four years old. Bao Bao will be turning four in August. (WTOP / Kathy Stewart)
Bao Bao

One of her keepers and a zoo veterinarian will travel to China and stay with her for several days to make sure she settles in. They packed a load of snacks for Bao Bao to eat during the flight.

By the numbers:
Aug. 23, 2013 — Bao Bao’s birthday
800 pounds — weight of Bao Bao’s steel travel crate
55 pounds of bamboo, 2 pounds of apples, two bags of leafeater biscuits, cooked sweet potatoes and water — snacks on Bao Bao’s flight
1 keeper
1 veterinarian
1 FedEx 777F aircraft decorated with a panda decal
1 FedEx truck decorated with a panda decal
1 forklift decorated with panda ears
8,508 miles, 16 hours — the flight to Chengdu, China
30 days — time Bao Bao will spend in quarantine
1,800 — giant pandas left in the wild
1972 — year giant pandas arrived at the National Zoo

WTOP’s Nick Iannelli, Hanna Choi and Kristi King contributed to this report.


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