Washington (CNN) -- A beloved giant panda will leave for China early next year to the disappointment of millions of fans in the United States.
Washington's National Zoo will say goodbye to 4-year-old Tai Shan as he makes his way to a breeding base in southwestern China. He'll leave during the first quarter of 2010, according to the zoo and Chinese state-run media.
Tai Shan -- on loan from China -- was born at the National Zoo to pandas that also are borrowed from China.
His father, 11-year-old Tian Tian, and his mother, 10-year-old Mei Xiang, are due in China in December 2010, according to the Xinhua news agency.
"While we're proud to send off a healthy panda to be part of China's breeding program, we will indeed miss him dearly," the National Zoo's Web site said of Tai Shan.
He has more growing to do, however.
"Although Tai Shan has the build of a grownup male panda, we still have to wait for about two years before it is sexually mature," said Li Desheng, deputy director of the management office of the Wolong National Natural Reserve in Sichuan province, according to Xinhua.
Tai Shan will never be released into the wild, but there is the hope that his offspring could be, the National Zoo said.
"Since we partnered with them 10 years ago, the Chinese have more than doubled their cub production, which means they're about to reach the significant goal of having 300 pandas in captivity," the zoo said on its Web site. "By reaching the target of 300 pandas, collectively we will ensure that the giant panda in captivity is demographically and genetically secure. It will be a huge conservation achievement."
The United States has 13 pandas on loan from China, according to Xinhua. The three in Washington and one each in Atlanta, Georgia, and San Diego, California, are due to return to China next year. Though Tai Shan has lived in Washington, his fans have followed him online for years, via the National Zoo's Pandacam.
They've oohed and aahed as he's frolicked, had milestone exams and grown -- from less than 2 pounds at birth to more than 200 pounds at his peak weight.