By Kavitha Cardoza
Tai Shan, the National Zoo's beloved giant panda, is en route to Chengdu, China. But in the Washington Metro area he leaves behind broken hearts.
Panda keepers with red rimmed eyes flanked the white custom made travel crate, carrying Tai Shan inside. The four-year-old was loaded with military precision into a waiting tractor trailer and taken to the airport.
"He's kind of our rock star," says Dr Erica Bauer, curator at the National Zoo.
Pandas are an endangered species and Tai Shan will be taken to a breeding program, under an agreement with the Chinese government. Bauer says this is necessary to conserve his species.
"There is no opportunity to breed him here," says Bauer. "He cant experience his life fully and get into the mating scene if he's at the National Zoo. So it's very important he meets other animals. He's gonna meet lots of girls!"
Zhu Hua, a journalist with China Central TV, says Tai Shan can anticipate the same level of adoration overseas. Hua says his American keepers laid to rest some fears that Tai Shan might face a language barrier, since he's accustomed to only hearing English.
"But they told me Tai Shan is smart. And they also help him to understand what they want to communicate by gestures," she says. "And they will show these gestures to the Chinese keepers. So there wont be any problem!"
But for many, the love he'll receive halfway across the world in his new home won't make up for his loss in D.C. As one woman put it, "there are pandas and there are pandas and then there's Tai Shan."