Giant Panda 'Bei Bei' Born in National Zoo Sent to China : Short Wave The Smithsonian's National Zoo is bidding farewell to Bei Bei. The 4-year-old giant panda will be sent to China on Tuesday, Nov. 19. While born in captivity at the zoo, Bei Bei is the property of China. Reporter Emily Kwong tells us about Bei Bei's elaborate departure plans, why he's leaving now, and what it would take to ensure the survival of giant pandas in the wild.
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With 65 Pounds Of Bamboo, Giant Panda 'Bei Bei' Prepares For Flight To China

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With 65 Pounds Of Bamboo, Giant Panda 'Bei Bei' Prepares For Flight To China

With 65 Pounds Of Bamboo, Giant Panda 'Bei Bei' Prepares For Flight To China

With 65 Pounds Of Bamboo, Giant Panda 'Bei Bei' Prepares For Flight To China

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/779777827/780034478" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Bei Bei, one of three giant pandas in residence at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, will be transported to China on Tuesday. Skip Brown/Smithsonian's National Zoo hide caption

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Skip Brown/Smithsonian's National Zoo

Bei Bei, one of three giant pandas in residence at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, will be transported to China on Tuesday.

Skip Brown/Smithsonian's National Zoo

The Smithsonian's National Zoo is bidding farewell this week to one of its most popular bamboo-loving residents: Bei Bei.

Why? The black-and-white bear is on temporary loan to the National Zoo from the Chinese government. That's the case with the majority of captive pandas around the world. Bei Bei's loan agreement stipulated that he must go to China when he reached 4 years of age.

Bei Bei will be sent to China on Tuesday to live at the Bifengxia Panda Base, run by the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda. Once he reaches sexual maturity, he'll enter its breeding program with the ultimate goal of expanding the captive panda population.

Bei Bei's siblings, Bao Bao and Tian Shan, were sent to China in 2016 and 2010, respectively. With Bei Bei's departure, the Smithsonian's National Zoo will be without an adolescent panda.

Bei Bei at 2 weeks old. His parents are Mei Xiang and Tien Tien, two adult giant pandas currently residing at the Smithsonian's National Zoo. Mehgan Murphy/Smithsonian's National Zoo hide caption

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Mehgan Murphy/Smithsonian's National Zoo

Bei Bei at 2 weeks old. His parents are Mei Xiang and Tien Tien, two adult giant pandas currently residing at the Smithsonian's National Zoo.

Mehgan Murphy/Smithsonian's National Zoo

Bei Bei, which means "precious, treasure" in Mandarin Chinese, was born at the zoo on Aug. 22, 2015. He came into the world pink, hairless and blind, approximately the size of a stick of butter. Now he weighs 240 pounds.

His departure is the capstone of weeklong celebration that began Monday entitled "Bye Bye, Bei Bei," which has included bamboo cakes for the pandas, dumplings donated by the Chinese Embassy for the humans, and visitors penning goodbye postcards.

The National Zoo will continue to care for Bei Bei's adult parents, Tien Tien and Mei Xiang. Their lease agreement is up in 2020 and will require an extension by the Chinese government if they are to stay.

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Bei Bei will travel to Chengdu on a private jet sponsored by FedEx and affixed with a decal of a panda on the side. His crate will contain the ultimate panda snack pack: 65 pounds of bamboo, 5 pounds of apples and pears, 2 pounds of carrots and cooked sweet potato, and several containers of water.

Joining Bei Bei for the 16-hour flight will be Don Neiffer, the zoo's chief veterinarian, and Laurie Thompson, the assistant curator of giant pandas.

Thompson has been caring for Bei Bei from the moment he was born. She describes the panda as independent, laid back, very intelligent and responsive to training — though sometimes naughty. One time, Bei Bei created a pile out of his toys. Ascending the pile, he managed to climb on top of the doorway of his own exhibit.

"We were actually kind of amazed that he was smart enough to do that," Thompson says. "We can laugh about it now."

Thompson plans to inform the Chinese of Bei Bei's penchant for climbing.

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Few species have been the focus of such an expensive, globally reaching conservation effort than pandas. Giant pandas were formally designated as "endangered" in 1988, when their numbers in the wild reached 1,114.

Through subsequent decades of intensive conservation and the creation of a panda reserve system, pandas were brought back from the brink of extinction. In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature re-designated them as merely "vulnerable." The Fourth National Giant Panda Survey, published in 2015 by the Sichuan Forestry Association, stated there were 1,864 pandas in the wild.

But why go through all this effort to save a single species?

Melissa Songer, a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, has a scientific explanation: As an "umbrella species," protecting the panda's habitat has the potential to save other species.

"In the 1980s, there were 12 protected areas for the giant panda. Now there are 67," Songer says. "There are an estimated 4,000 known species that are also sharing that habitat, species that are not inspiring people the way giant pandas do. When we're protecting these areas for giant pandas, we're protecting all these species as well."

Bei Bei perches in a tree at the Smithsonian's National Zoo. Skip Brown/Smithsonian's National Zoo hide caption

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Skip Brown/Smithsonian's National Zoo

Bei Bei perches in a tree at the Smithsonian's National Zoo.

Skip Brown/Smithsonian's National Zoo

Though the giant panda population has grown, both in captivity and in the wild, their natural range remains under threat.

A 2017 study in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution by Chinese and U.S. scientists found that while panda habitat has grown overall, their forest habitats are being broken up by roads, railways and other forms of human development. This process is known as habitat fragmentation.

Wild pandas are isolated from one another, which impairs genetic diversity and opportunities for breeding. Encroachment on their habitat along the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau will continue to put the species in danger.

Panda conservationists must also contend with the unknowns of climate change. "We don't know how the changes in climate are going impact the bamboo that they're dependent on," Songer says. "How do we expect the forest to shift in 50 years? In 80 years?"

Scientists are working to rewild the species, introducing giant pandas born in captivity into the wild. While Bei Bei will not be released into the wild, his offspring or descendants might some day.

Once Thompson and Neiffer reach Chengdu this week, they'll spend a few days helping Bei Bei and his new keepers at Bifengxia Panda Base grow accustomed to one another.

When asked about the last thing she'll say to Bei Bei when it's time to say goodbye, Thompson fights back tears.

"I think I'll probably just tell him, 'Be a good boy.' "

This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez and edited by Viet Le.