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Giant Panda Bei Bei Set To Leave National Zoo For China


All right. The Smithsonian's National Zoo here in Washington is bidding bon voyage today to one of its most popular residents, Bei Bei the giant panda bear.


Bei Bei. It's an emotional day for the zoo director, Steve Monfort. He's been with Bei Bei since the bear's birth at the zoo in 2015.

STEVE MONFORT: Bei Bei is a rock star. He's a real showman, a little guy. He can't stand being quiet, so he likes to get out and show off to the public a lot.

GREENE: Now, Bei Bei, whose name means precious in Mandarin, is a charmer. Two million people visit him annually and another 10 million a year watch these livestreams of him chomping and swinging and playing.

MONFORT: I don't think many rock stars get as much attention as he does.

MARTIN: Bei Bei is now bound for China. At age 4, all panda cubs born at the zoo move there to help expand the panda population.

MONFORT: These animals that are part of the breeding program in China are an incredibly important resource for eventually restoring and reintroducing those animals into nature, which will then lead, we hope, to the long-term success and stability of those wild populations.

GREENE: So Bei Bei is going to take a direct flight with two handlers from Washington, D.C., to Qingdao, China, in a special FedEx plane that maybe we should call the Panda Express?

MARTIN: Maybe, maybe not.

GREENE: And in flight, he's going to have all the bare necessities, Rachel.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MONFORT: He loves things like, well, sugar water and pears, sweet potatoes, apples - oh, and don't forget bamboo.

MARTIN: I never would. There are only around 500 giant pandas in captivity globally. Each new birth in these sanctuaries is a rare occasion. So zoo staff treat every cub like their own children.

MONFORT: It's just pure joy because the team works tirelessly to achieve that kind of a milestone. And so everything after that is focused on just ensuring that he grows up healthy and happy and becomes independent.

GREENE: But for people here, it is time to say bye-bye to Bei Bei.

MONFORT: Yes. We're going to be very sad. There's no question about it. But it's mixed with really a great sense of pride and also hope for the future.

GREENE: Safe travels, furry friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF EEVEE'S "M I S T") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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