By Mark Memmott

So long, Tai Shan.

Farewell Mei Lan.

The pandas are on their way to China.

As their fans know all too well, the National Zoo's Tai Shan and Atlanta's Mei Lan are headed across the Pacific to be part of a breeding program at the Bifengxia Panda Base in Ya'an, Sichuan. It's part of the deal with China -- the pandas were really only on "loan" and are to be part of the effort to increase the animal's population.

The Washington Post has a live webcast running right now. The pandas are being loaded on to their special FedEx jet, which is preparing to depart from Washington Dulles International Airport.

As the Associated Press writes:

Panda Tai Shan on Feb. 3, 2010, at the National Zoo. By Avie Schneider/NPR.

Safe travels, big guy. (Avie Schneider/NPR)

It's a day panda lovers have been dreading.
"He's our success story," 37-year-old Deanna Williston said of Tai Shan. During a Wednesday visit to the Smithsonian's National Zoo, she recalled how her family and friends tracked his growth from the size of stick of butter to nearly 200 pounds.
She knitted a panda hat based on Tai Shan's picture and wears it for good luck when there might be another panda pregnancy.
"We got to see him as a cub, sitting in a tiny bucket," she said, overlooking the zoo's panda yard where Tai Shan snacked in the snow and climbed a tree.

Update at 1:30 p.m. ET. From Atlanta, WABE's Jim Burress reports that the pandas will have to learn some Chinese because right now they only understand commands in English:

Update at 12:11 p.m. ET: And the jet is off the ground.

Update at noon ET: The pandas' plane just started rolling toward the runway at Dulles. So long.

(And here's a little joke, courtesy of CBS News' Mark Knoller: Since it's already Friday in China, Fed Ex won't be able to do a same-day delivery.)

categories: National News

10:45 - February 4, 2010