By Laila Kearney
(Reuters) – Bao Bao, the 3-year-old giant panda who rose to fame while growing up on live video at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, left for her new home in China on Tuesday under a long-standing breeding and research program.
Bao Bao could be seen in live video provided by the zoo being loaded, inside her crate, onto a Boeing 777F aircraft at the Dulles International Airport in Virginia for Chengdu, China.
The freighter, customized with an image of a giant panda emblazoned on its side, took off just before 2 p.m. ET (1900 GMT)
“Today is bittersweet,” zoo Director Dennis Kelly said in a statement. “We’ve watched Bao Bao grow up during the past three years, and she has charmed people all over the world with her independent and playful personality.”
The giant panda now enters “the next chapter of her life,” Kelly said.
Traveling with Bao Bao will be her handler and veterinarian, as well as 55 pounds of bamboo and several more pounds of biscuits, sweet potatoes and sugarcane. She will be greeted by her new keepers upon arrival in Chengdu.
Bao Bao was born at the zoo on Aug. 23, 2013 to mother Mei Xiang and father Tian Tian, who were loaned to the zoo as part of an agreement with the Chinese Wildlife Conservation Association.
Under the deal, all cubs born at the National Zoo must move to China by the time they reach 4 years old for breeding and research.
The National Zoo received its first pair of giant pandas in 1972 as a gift from the Chinese government. That pair, female Ling-Ling and male Hsing-Hsing, lived at the zoo for more than 20 years, but produced no surviving cubs.
Bao Bao drew an international audience as the star of the zoo “panda cam,” which documented her birth and childhood for millions of fans worldwide.
Admirers have included former first lady Michelle Obama, who sent a message to the giant panda cub on the day she was born.
In the week leading up to her departure, fans were allowed to observe Bao Bao as she was plied with her favorite treats, including ice cakes made of frozen fruit juices and vegetables.
Bao Bao’s younger brother, Bei Bei, who was born in 2015, and their parents will remain at the zoo as part of its breeding program, which runs until December 2020.
(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jonathan Oatis)