Bye Bye Bao Bao: National Zoo’s Beloved Giant Panda Leaves For China

This morning, one of the Smithsonian National Zoo’s most beloved residents, the giant panda Bao Bao, boarded a plane stocked with fan mail and bamboo to make the 16-hour trip to Chengdu, China. On the weekend before her departure, over 60,000 visitors stopped by the zoo to say goodbye, and officials threw a party in Bao Bao’s honor, complete with a pagoda-shaped ice cake.

Although Bao Bao was born in the United States, a cooperative breeding program between the China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA) and the National Zoo requires that giant pandas must be sent to China before they reach four years of age. Bao Bao’s birth in 2013 was portrayed as a symbol of friendship between China and the U.S., and Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan and then-American First Lady Michelle Obama both sent video messages to celebrate the occasion. Bao Bao is a continuation of a tradition called “panda diplomacy,” in which the Chinese government has gifted foreign nations with pandas as a gesture of friendship.

Here are five reasons why pandas are so important in China.


1. Giant pandas are an exclusively Chinese species.

The Giant Panda is native to south central China, and its rarity and global adoration has made it a national treasure.  


2. Pandas serve as China’s international symbol.

(Sheila Thomson / Creative Commons)
(Sheila Thomson / Creative Commons)

The panda is indisputably adorable. Jinjing, a panda character, was a mascot of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.


3. The panda is a symbol of harmony and peace.

(Swetha R / DonkeyHotey / Creative Commons)(Swetha R / DonkeyHotey / Creative Commons)

The panda’s black-and-white coloration makes it resemble the yin-yang symbol, which represents harmony between opposing forces in classical Chinese philosophies. During the Xizhou Dynasty, raising a flag with a panda would immediately lead to a temporary peace.


4. Pandas make effective political bargaining tools.

As far back as the Tang dynasty, the Chinese government has used pandas as gifts to foreign governments. The west has been particularly susceptible to the cuteness of the panda, and Bao Bao’s presence in the United States continues an American tradition that began when President Richard Nixon accepted a pair of pandas from China in 1972.


5. Pandas bring in the big bucks.

(mrsrobot0 / Creative Commons)(mrsrobot0 / Creative Commons)

Pandas are huge crowd pleasers in zoos. Many nations are willing to pay large amounts of money to obtain them. Since 1984, China has capitalized on the panda’s marketability by loaning the animals to other countries for 10-year periods at a rate of up to $1 million per year, while also retaining the rights to any cubs born during the period.


Farewell, Bao Bao: