Bei Bei, the third surviving giant panda cub to be born at the zoo — and the last to depart — left the facility for good Tuesday on a damp morning with the sun shining through the bamboo groves and crows squawking from the trees.
At 9:06 a.m., the white FedEx truck with the panda logo pulled out of the zoo, bound for Dulles International Airport and a 16-hour, nonstop, free-of-charge FedEx flight to Chengdu, China.
The scene as beloved panda Bei Bei departs The National Zoo for China
The departure came after weeks of zoo preparation — and one last breakfast in the panda compound in front of hordes of photographers and TV crews delivering their reports in multiple languages.
Bei Bei sat on a rock amid the fallen leaves, munching bamboo branches, while zoo officials and a top-ranking minister from the Chinese Embassy, Li Kexin, assembled to say farewell.
At 8:35 a.m., keepers dragged out bunches of extra branches and a wheeled cart filled with a broom and other materials for the flight.
Then, at 8:50 a.m., as zoo director Steve Monfort and Li looked on, a forklift carrying the white shipping crate — with a placard that read “live animals” and Bei Bei inside — emerged and headed for the truck.
It was followed minutes later by the zoo’s chief veterinarian, Don Neiffer, and assistant curator of giant pandas, Laurie Thompson, with their flight bags and equipment. They accompanied Bei Bei on the trip.
Then the keepers, most in their khaki pants and blue jackets, huddled.
“He is probably the last cub we’ll have here in a long time,” Brandie Smith, the zoo’s deputy director, had said earlier. “It’s sad because it’s Bei Bei’s departure, but it’s also sad because it’s the end of an era for the panda program at the National Zoo.”
“We will have cubs in the future,” she said, “but not [with] this little family of pandas. It will be the next generation.”
Bei Bei traveled on a Boeing 777 cargo jet for the 8,508-mile journey, which started a little after noon Tuesday.
The plane was cavernous, but the 240-pound panda was the only freight. The plane had a giant image of Bei Bei on the fuselage.
He had 66 pounds of bamboo, two pounds of apples and pears, two bags of panda biscuits and two pounds of cooked sweet potatoes to eat on the trip.
Once in Chengdu, he would be greeted by experts from the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, then be driven to the Bifengxia Panda Base, about 90 miles southwest of Chengdu.
He will be in quarantine for 30 days. When he reaches maturity in about three years, he will enter a breeding program.
China owns and leases all giant pandas in U.S. zoos. The animals, and especially their cubs, have been part of the relationship between the two countries through good times and bad, from the Cold War to the current trade tensions and turmoil in Hong Kong.
“I think this is a success story,” Monfort said. “Why would anybody want to mess with that? . . . To me, they symbolize the beginning of something between our nations. We’ve got to be building more on that.”
“We don’t want to get in the middle of anything political,” he added. “It’s up to others to play that game. It won’t be us.”
The zoo has not had a cub since Bei Bei was born in 2015.
Its adult giant pandas — the female, Mei Xiang, and the male, Tian Tian — did not produce an offspring this year. Mei Xiang, zoo officials have said, is of “advanced maternal age,” and it is unlikely that she will get pregnant again.
“One would expect it to get easier,” Pamela Baker-Masson, a spokeswoman at the zoo, said of the departing animal. “But there is this undeniable attachment that I have to this bear.”
She said Bei Bei is “incredibly charismatic” and has “a very distinct charm.”
“I’ve come to know him,” Baker-Masson said. “And I remember the day he was born.”
It’s not clear how, or whether, the zoo will get giant panda cubs again. Nor is it clear whether the Chinese will want the two adults back when their lease expires next year, on Dec. 7.
Both were born in China, and their lease has already been extended twice by the Chinese since the animals arrived at the zoo in 2000.
Monfort said he does not anticipate any problems and said he could see China extending the lease on the adults again.
“They’re still young enough, I believe, to do that,” he said. “And that may mean they won’t produce any cubs. We don’t know for sure. . . . We’d like to keep them here as long as we can. This is the only real life that they’ve known.”
But if China decides it wants the National Zoo’s pandas back, “that’s their right,” he said.
Li lamented the departure of Bei Bei and said he was aware that the zoo wanted to keep giant pandas in Washington.
“We’re working on it,” he said. “My government is open for any kind of cooperation of this kind, with many countries, of course, including the U.S.”
The National Zoo has had giant pandas almost continuously for 47 years.
The zoo’s first giant pandas, Hsing-Hsing, a male, and Ling-Ling, a female, were gifts from China during the administration of President Richard M. Nixon in 1972.
Ling-Ling died in 1992. Hsing-Hsing died in 1999.
As few as 1,864 giant pandas live in the wild, while several hundred more live in zoos and breeding centers around the world. Their conservation status is listed as vulnerable.