Giant panda Bei Bei celebrated his fourth birthday at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo August 22, but it was a bittersweet occasion. For the Zoo’s panda cubs, turning four means an imminent move to China, where they will join a cooperative breeding program designed to conserve the species.
Bei Bei will leave for Chengdu, China, on Tuesday, November 19. The week leading up to his departure will be dedicated to “all things Bei Bei,” says Michael Brown-Palsgrove, the Zoo’s curator of giant pandas. From November 11 to 18, the Zoo will host online and on-site events, including Q&A sessions with Bei Bei’s keepers and a special ice cake for the guest of honor.
A similar celebration took place when Bei Bei’s older sister, Bao Bao, left the Zoo in 2017. The siblings, along with their older brother, Tai Shan, and parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, are a part of at 47-year program committed to panda conservation. The Zoo has a cooperative breeding agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association that contributed to the giant panda’s shift from endangered to vulnerable species status.
“We are working to save species, so nothing could be better than to actually be able to produce a panda cub that could return to China and hopefully maybe even sire offspring that could be released into the wild,” Brown-Palsgrove says. “This is a culmination of many years of work with many people to make this possible.”
Bei Bei will officially enter the breeding program when he reaches sexual maturity between 5 and 7 years old. In the meantime, his keepers will help him prepare for travel and acclimate to his new home. They will soon place his travel crate in the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat and encourage him to walk through it by giving him treats.
One panda keeper will accompany Bei Bei on his non-stop flight to Chengdu, bringing a supply of bamboo, apples, sweet potatoes and more to keep him comfortable and happy. It is also best for pandas to travel in the cool fall and winter months rather than in the summer heat. The keeper will stay with Bei Bei in China for a short time to make sure the animal is getting used to his new base, then return to the Zoo. Although the staff is sad to see Bei Bei go, they understand that their mission extends beyond individual animals.
“Bei Bei is part of our family,” says Steve Monfort, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, in a press release. “Our team has cared for him, learned from him and, along with millions, loved watching him grow. We’re sad he’s leaving, but excited for the contributions he will make to the global giant panda population.”
The Zoo’s commitment to saving pandas also includes efforts to conserve panda habitats and count wild pandas in China. Smithsonian scientists are working with scientists in China to study giant panda reproduction and cub health, habitat and disease. The pandas in the Zoo are ambassadors to this work, Brown-Palsgrove says, allowing visitors to get to know pandas like Bei Bei personally support a greater cause.
“Our giant pandas represent much of what the Smithsonian does best, from conservation to education,” says Lonnie Bunch, Secretary of the Smithsonian, in a press release. “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.”
A series of events at the National Zoo and online are scheduled for November 11 through November 18, 2019. Panda Cam 1 is solely dedicated to Bei Bei, so that remote viewers can watch for twice daily feedings of special treats. On November 16 and 17, all three of the Zoo's Giant Pandas will be treated to an ice cake treat at 9 a.m. EST.