(Reuters) – After a month of preparations and good-byes, Bei Bei, the Washington National Zoo’s most eligible giant panda bachelor, is set to leave for China on Tuesday, where scientists hope he will help increase the population of his species.
The departure of 4-year-old Bei Bei to his parents’ homeland had been pre-arranged and was announced last month by the zoo, where giant pandas have always been a visitor favourite.
Zookeepers have spent the past few weeks getting him accustomed to his travel crate, first by training him to walk through it, then spending time inside with the door closed.
For his flight to China aboard a Boeing 777x flown by FedEx, zookeepers have planned to pack Bei Bei’s favourite snacks, like bamboo, pears, and cooked sweet potatoes.
Breeding programs are key to efforts to reintroduce pandas into the wild. Thanks to reforestation to expand habitats in which the species can survive, pandas have been reclassified from “endangered” to “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Preservation of Nature. There are an estimated 1,800 giant pandas in the wild.
Bei Bei is not the first in his family to travel abroad. His parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, arrived from the China in 2000, and his older siblings Tai Shan and Bao Bao both packed their bags for China when they came of breeding age.
The zoo has collaborated with Chinese scientists on a breeding program since it received its first pandas in 1972 following President Richard Nixon’s visit to China. As part of the program, pandas return to China at 4 years old so that they can breed when they reach sexual maturity at 5 years old.
(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Sandra Maler)