After a 16-hour flight, American-born panda celebrity Bao Bao landed at Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport in Sichuan Province at 7:10 p.m. local time on Feb. 22. Quarantine officials cleared Bao Bao to disembark from the FedEx Boeing 777 freighter, painted with picture of a giant bamboo-eating panda, at 8:00 p.m.
The 3-year-old female panda was taken care of by keeper Marty Dearie during the flight. Dearie said Bao Bao ate and slept the whole way. “Bao Bao was a real champion during the flight. All the weeks of training and preparation served her really well,” he said. “She’s in excellent hands now and I’m glad I get to transition with our Chinese partners and have my ‘goodbye’ in a couple days.”
Bao Bao will stay in quarantine for a month in a 100-square-meter enclosure at the Dujiangyan base of the China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Panda in Chengdu, according to Tang Cheng who will look after her during her quarantine “The public will be able to see Bao Bao when she is given a clean bill of health following her quarantine,” Tang said. Tang cleaned Bao Bao’s new home on Feb. 22, and prepared a meal for her. She had local bamboo, apples, carrots, and steamed corn bread for her welcome feast. Dearie will briefly remain with Bao Bao while she gets adjusted.
In time, when Bao Bao reaches sexual maturity, between 5 and 6 years old, she’ll become part of a panda breeding program. Bao Bao will have to learn Chinese now that she has landed in China.
So far, she has only learned English commands.
Bao Bao delighted 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.
Since then, Bao Bao, whose name means “precious treasure” in Chinese, has grown from about the size of a stick of butter to more than 200 pounds. Her keepers describe her personality as “very independent,” sort of like a household cat.
Laurie Thompson, the assistant curator of giant pandas, said keepers had been preparing Bao Bao to leave for China since she was born, teaching her behaviors that will allow her Chinese keepers to do things like draw blood and perform ultrasounds. Thompson said Bao Bao’s departure was “definitely bittersweet,” but her keepers knew that she was ready to leave.
With Bao Bao’s departure, the National Zoo has 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 are now a dozen pandas remaining in the United States: four in Atlanta, three in Washington, three in San Diego and two in Memphis, Tennessee.
The National Zoo and Washington residents have a special relationship with the creatures, however. The zoo’s first pair of pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, were a gift from China and arrived at the zoo in 1972 following President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the country.
The pair had five cubs while living at the zoo, but none survived. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are the zoo’s second panda pair.