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Special Delivery: 3-year-old American-born Panda Cub Bao Bao Bound for China

Bao Bao will be the only panda on the plane, traveling with a keeper and a veterinarian. Her accommodations are first class, too

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FILE - panda cub Bao Bao hangs from a tree in her habitat at the National Zoo in Washington.

The National Zoo is packing up its American-born panda cub Bao Bao for a one-way flight to China, where the 3-year-old will eventually join a panda breeding program.

The cub won’t have to worry about finding overhead bin space or dealing with a talkative seatmate on the 16-hour, nonstop flight Tuesday afternoon into Wednesday. She’ll be the only panda on the plane, traveling with a keeper and a veterinarian. Her accommodations are first class, too: a special metal crate the size of a double bed she can stretch out in. A sticker on its outside announces its contents: “one panda.”

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In preparation for the trip, keepers have a packing list of Bao Bao’s favorite foods including: 55 pounds of bamboo, 5 pounds of apples and 2 pounds of sweet potatoes.

“Most of the flight, we hope she’s going to eat,” said panda keeper Marty Dearie, who will travel with Bao Bao to China and says pandas spend 13 to 16 hours a day eating.

Bao Bao is scheduled to depart the zoo Tuesday morning and travel to Washington Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia, where she’ll board a special FedEx plane. Fans will be able to watch her departure from the zoo and airport on the zoo’s Facebook page.

Once Bao Bao arrives in Chengdu, China, she’ll be driven to her new home, one of the bases run by the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda. Dearie will briefly remain with her while she gets adjusted. In time, when she reaches sexual maturity, between 5 and 6 years old, she’ll become part of a panda breeding program. The National Zoo says Bao Bao is traveling now because it’s better for pandas to travel in the winter months when it is cool.

Bao Bao delighted the 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.

Brandie Smith, the zoo’s associate director of animal care sciences, said that when Bao Bao was born a year later she remembers “five minutes of pure joy” followed by “weeks of sleeplessness and worry.”

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 have 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 is “definitely bittersweet,” but her keepers “know she’s ready” to leave.

“We’re ready. We’ve done our part, and we’re ready to send her to China so she can have her own babies someday,” Thompson said.

With Bao Bao’s departure, the National Zoo will have 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 will be a dozen pandas remaining in the United States: four in Atlanta, three in Washington, three in San Diego and two in Memphis, Tennessee.

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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. (VOA)

Next Story

China Takes Panda Diplomacy to Moscow

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is on a three-day state visit to Russia

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China, Panda, diplomacy, Moscow
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a ceremony at which Xi was presented with an honorary degree from St. Petersburg State University in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 6, 2019. VOA

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is on a three-day state visit to Russia aimed at underscoring Russian-Sino cooperation — and his close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin — in the face of strained relations with the United States.

“In the past six years, we have met nearly 30 times,” said Xi of the Russian leader.

“Russia is the country that I have visited the most times, and President Putin is my best friend and colleague,” added Xi.

While ostensibly timed to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties, the state visit comes as both leaders bristle over their treatment by the U.S., which has levied sanctions against Russia since 2014 and currently is engaged in a trade war with China.

China, Panda, diplomacy, Moscow
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the ceremony at which Chinese President Xi Jinping was presented with an honorary degree from St. Petersburg State University at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 6, 2019. VOA

“People generally tend to go to the places where they are liked,” said Mikhail Korostikov, Asia-Pacific observer for the Kommersant daily newspaper, in explaining the personal chemistry between Putin and Xi. “But the conflict with the U.S. that both countries are facing made them closer.”

Military ties

Indeed, beyond their grudges with Washington, a shared worldview on global security has helped both sides overcome distrust that once plagued the Soviet-China relationship, which fractured over differing interpretations of communist ideology and border disputes.

Case in point: inclusion of 3,200 Chinese troops alongside 300,000 Russians in the Kremlin’s massive Vostok-2018 military training exercise in Russia’s Far East last year, according to official sources.

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From their perch at the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China now regularly form a global counterweight to the U.S. on thorny issues such as Syria, North Korea and Iran — a point noted by Putin in a statement after meeting with Xi on Wednesday.

“In discussing important international and regional problems, I can say that in most of them, the views of Russia and China are aligned or very close,” said the Russian leader.

So, too, increasingly, are their economies.

Russian ‘pivot’

China, Panda, diplomacy, Moscow
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, attend a welcoming ceremony for two Chinese giant pandas, male Ru Yi and female Ding Ding, at the Moscow Zoo on June 5, 2019. VOA

In the wake of Western sanctions levied over the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin announced Russia would “pivot” its economy toward Asia.

Russian officials now tout trade deals with China worth more than $100 billion annually — making China Russia’s top trading partner — as proof Russia has weathered the storm. Russia is only 10th on China’s list, with the United States first.

Xi also will appear alongside Putin at the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on Friday. While the Chinese delegation to the event is 1,000 strong, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Huntsman Jr., is boycotting the event over the detention of an American businessman in Moscow.

Yet, in all likelihood, the lasting image of the state visit will prove to be Ru Yi and Ding Ding, two giant pandas from China’s Sichuan province that Xi gifted on loan to the Moscow Zoo for the next 15 years.

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With the gesture, Xi tapped into China’s famed panda diplomacy — the use of furry diplomatic gifts to help repair relationships or forge ties anew.

It certainly seemed to have the desired effect on the Russian leader.

“When we talk of pandas,” noted Putin, “we always end up with a smile on our faces.” (VOA)