By Gina Cherelus
(Reuters) - Bao Bao the female giant panda will leave the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. early next year and move to China under a breeding agreement, officials at the zoo said on Thursday.
Three-year-old Bao Bao, who was the first surviving cub born at Smithsonian's National Zoo since 2005, has enchanted zoo visitors and others who watched her via live "panda cam" footage.
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"She's captured the hearts of people all over the world who watched her grow up ... and she has been an ambassador for conservation," Brandie Smith, associate director of animal care at the zoo, said in a statement.
Bao Bao will enter the breeding program for giant pandas under an arrangement between the zoo and the China Wildlife Conservation Association that says all cubs born at the U.S. national zoo must move to China by the time they turn 4 years old.
Upon arrival in Chengdu, China she will travel to a facility run by the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, accompanied by one keeper and one veterinarian from the National Zoo, officials in Washington said.
The zoo's panda team will continuously monitor Bao Bao during the trip and will travel with a supply of her favorite treats, "including bamboo, apples, pears, cooked sweet potatoes and water."
Bao Bao must reach sexual maturity, between the ages of 5 and six years old, before entering the breeding program, the zoo said, and by then she will have acclimated to her new home.
"We are sad to see her go, but excited for the contributions she is going to continue to make to the global giant panda population," Smith said.
There are an estimated 1,800 giant pandas in the wild, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which classes them as "vulnerable."
The national zoo said it will soon announce special opportunities for the public to say goodbye and celebrate Bao Bao before she departs for China. Her brother, Tai Shan, was sent to China in 2010.
(Reporting by Gina Cherelus; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Andrew Hay)