Bye, Bao Bao! Later, Mei Lun and Mei Huan! Pandas leaving US

WASHINGTON (AP) - The panda population in the United States is dropping by three.

Atlanta’s zoo announced Thursday that its 3-year-old giant panda twins will leave the zoo Nov. 3. And the National Zoo in Washington said it will be saying bye-bye to panda cub Bao Bao in 2017. The zoo didn’t give a date but said the cub will move to China within the first few months of the new year. Both zoos said it is better for pandas to travel in the winter months when it is cool.

A total of four U.S. zoos have pandas that are on loan from China. As part of the loan agreement, pandas born in the United States return to China, generally around age 4. All three pandas leaving for China are females and expected to eventually become part of a breeding program there.

When they leave, there will be a dozen pandas remaining in the United States: four in Atlanta, three in Washington, three in San Diego and two in Memphis.

Atlanta’s departing panda twins, Mei Lun and Mei Huan, were born July 15, 2013, and were the first surviving panda twins born in the United States. The zoo’s head veterinarian said that when the two were young, Mei Lun was a little bit of a complainer while Mei Huan was more “go with the flow,” though those differences have smoothed out as they aged. They have since been joined by a second pair of twins born at Zoo Atlanta on Sept. 3.

In Washington, Bao Bao delighted the zoo and panda fans when she was born Aug. 23, 2013 . Her mother, Mei Xiang, gave birth to her first cub, Tai Shan, in 2005, but failed to get pregnant for years. Then, a cub born in 2012 didn’t survive. Mei Xiang has since had a third surviving cub, Bei Bei, who was born on Aug. 22, 2015. Older brother Tai Shan left the zoo for China in 2010.

Both zoos say they’re preparing for the pandas’ departure. In Washington, a travel crate will soon be placed in Bao Bao’s habitat so she can get used to it. In Atlanta, a crate is already part of the pandas’ enclosure.

Both zoos also have their packing lists. In Washington, it includes 55 pounds of bamboo, 2 pounds of apples and pears and 10 gallons of water. Zoo Atlanta’s list is double that size and includes sugarcane and bananas.

National Zoo panda curator Michael Brown-Palsgrove had some words of comfort for fans sad to say “bon voyage” to Bao Bao, underscoring the “very important role” she will play by returning to China and becoming part of the breeding program there.

Zoo Atlanta’s head veterinarian, Hayley Murphy, the Vice President of Animal Divisions, acknowledged the pandas’ departure is bittersweet.

“We’ve loved having two grow up together. It’s been really fun to watch them play and entertain each other,” she said.

Panda enthusiasts in Atlanta do have something to look forward to even as Mei Lun and Mei Huan depart. Their 6-week-old siblings are expected to make their public debut in December or January.

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