*

upload_article_image

Bei Bei, an American-born panda, leaves Washington for China

A specially equipped Boeing 777 jet took off from Dulles International Airport on Tuesday carrying a true Washington celebrity: Bei Bei, a 4-year-old giant panda.

Visitors to Washington’s National Zoo have watched him grow up since Day One. But now he’s headed to China.

Under terms of the zoo’s agreement with the Chinese government, any panda born here must be sent to China when they reach age 4. When he reaches sexual maturity after age 6, Bei Bei will be entered into China’s government-run breeding program, seeking to expand the vulnerable Panda population.

Zoo Director Steve Monfort called the occasion “bittersweet.” He said zoo staff and visitors had grown to love the bear but that his return was important to the future of the species.