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Famed panda to leave U.S. capital

By Larry Lazo, CNN
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Snowy panda party
  • Tai Shan, a 4-year-old giant panda, is to be delivered to China next week
  • A farewell party was held at the National Zoo in Washington on Saturday
  • He'll be joined in China by Mei Lan -- a 3-year-old panda born at Zoo Atlanta in Georgia
  • They will take part in a breeding program aimed at increasing China's panda population

Washington (CNN) -- It feels like it went by in the blink of an eye. Tai Shan, the giant panda cub so many people have come to know and love, is about to board a flight to China.

"It's very bittersweet. We love him. We love having him here," said Erika Bauer, curator at the National Zoo in Washington.

Tai Shan was born in the nation's capital, so you can confidently call him a Washingtonian. But he is to be sent to China, under an agreement between the two nations, to help replenish the endangered species' numbers in the wild.

At 4½ years old, Tai Shan is more of a panda adolescent than a cub, but to Tai Shan fans, he will always be their baby.

"We watched him as he grew up and it's kind of sad to see him go," said Kathleen Ryland of Highland, Maryland.

Video: Amanpour.:Panda diplomacy

Ryland brought her two children to say their goodbyes to Tai Shan at a farewell party at the National Zoo Saturday. Despite the snow falling on the panda exhibit, there were plenty of warm and fuzzy feelings about Tai Shan.

"He's so cute. I'll miss him," said Claire Ryland, 7.

It's often said that a visit to Washington is not complete without a stop at the zoo to see Tai Shan. Over the years, some have even gone as far to say that Tai Shan was Washington's No. 1 resident -- even getting top billing over the president.

Tai Shan will leave for China on Thursday via the "FedEx Panda Express." He'll be joined by Mei Lan - a 3-year-old panda born at Zoo Atlanta in Georgia. Eventually, they will take part in a breeding program aimed at increasing the panda population. Giant pandas are currently on the endangered list. The National Zoo estimates that about 1,600 giant pandas are currently in the wild.

Bauer says that's all the more reason to say goodbye to Tai Shan.

"It's very important to get Tai Shan into the breeding population to help conserve the species in general. This is a very good day for him," she said.