Bei Bei turned 4 on Aug. 22. He will join two other D.C. giant panda cubs that have been sent to China in recent years: Bao Bao in 2017 and her brother, Tai Shan, in 2010.
In Bei Bei’s case, the zoo announced weeks ago that plans were underway for him to go to China. Typically, there’s plenty of fanfare when one of the zoo’s pandas gets shipped across the globe, including hordes of extra visitors during the animal’s final days in Washington.
Bei Bei was described on Friday as being a member of the zoo “family” who will be missed.
"Our team has cared for him, learned from him and, along with millions, loved watching him grow," Steve Monfort, director of the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, said in a statement. "We're sad he's leaving, but excited for the contributions he will make to the global giant panda population."
To prepare Bei Bei for the journey, zookeepers have been getting him acclimated to a travel crate. The crate will be placed inside the panda habitat and keepers will work with Bei Bei to move through it daily, officials said.
Once he’s gotten used to walking through the crate, they will “acclimate him to spending short periods of time in it with the door closed,” zoo officials said in a statement.
A panda keeper and a veterinarian will accompany Bei Bei on the 16-hour nonstop flight from Washington to Chengdu, China, on an aircraft provided by FedEx. That company flew the other D.C. pandas to China as well.
Experts will monitor Bei Bei during the trip and carry his favorite treats, including bamboo, apples, pears, carrots, cooked sweet potatoes and biscuits. Zoo officials said fall is a better time for pandas to travel, avoiding hot summer months.
Once the giant panda arrives in Chengdu, Bei Bei’s new keepers will accompany him to the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda. Keepers from the National Zoo will stay with him until he settles in.
Bei Bei will join the giant panda breeding program when he reaches sexual maturity, between ages 5 and 7.
He is one of three surviving cubs of Mei Xiang. His father is Tian Tian. Both adults will remain at the zoo, although the 20-year Chinese lease of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian will be up Dec. 7, 2020.
The zoo has said it has not started discussions with the Chinese about the lease and could not speculate on an outcome.
Zoo officials said Bei Bei has lived apart from his mother since March 2017. In the wild, giant pandas are solitary, and cubs separate from their mothers to establish their own territories when they’re 18 months to 2 years old, according to zoo experts.
Before Bei Bei leaves, the zoo is planning events Nov. 11-18 dubbed “Bye Bye, Bei Bei.” Details of the events were not released Friday.
Before Bao Bao departed in 2017, she received a pagoda-shaped ice cake made of apple juice, red “leafeater” biscuits and two kinds of bamboo.
Officials said scientists at the National Zoo and the Conservation Biology Institute, which promotes conservation programs at the zoo, work with scientists in China to study panda reproduction, their health and their habitat. In China, scientists are working to reintroduce giant pandas into the wild.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the species as “vulnerable,” with about 1,800 giant pandas in the wild. Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III said in a statement that pandas represent much of what the Smithsonian does best, including conservation and education.
“As we say goodbye to our beloved Bei Bei, our conservation scientists will continue to work in collaboration to prevent these animals from disappearing, giving them the opportunity to thrive in the wild, inspiring and teaching generations to come,” he said.
Michael E. Ruane contributed to this report.