How Do You get a Panda to China? FedEx

In this photograph provided by the National Zoo, Tai Shan, the National Zoos giant panda cub, plays in a tree at his home at the zoo Friday, June 9, 2006. The cub turns one year old Sunday, July 9.
AP/Smithsonian, Ann Batdorf

Perhaps it was the drama surrounding his birth. But Tai Shan, the first giant panda born at the National Zooto survive more than a few weeks - was a child star from the very beginning.

A bank of cameras captured every move - transmitting them to his adoring public via the zoo's website. People were able to watch his first weigh-ins and doctor's visits, to his first halting steps and his first outings.

But now at 4-years-old and 184 pounds, Tai Shan is all grown up and the zoo's contract with China requires it to send any panda born here back to his ancestral home.

Ever Try to FedEx a Panda?

For weeks, his longtime trainer has been getting him accustomed to the specially made travel crate.

Panda Photo Essay

"He's so flexible and adaptable, we think that he's going to do just fine," said trainer Nicole Meese.

Washington is the only home Tai Shan has ever known. While everyone here is sad to see him go, they know that the main goal is the perpetuation of the species - and that can only happen if healthy young males like Tai Shan head back to China to breed.

At last count there were fewer than 300 pandas in captivity, with just 1,600 in the wild.

So today, like a foreign dignitary whose visa has run out, Tai Shan was taken by motorcade to Dulles International Airport - where he and another panda from Atlanta were loaded onto a FedEx cargo plane for the 14 hour journey to Chengdu, China.

"It's kind of like sending him off to college," said one zoo visitor. "Yeah, except we won't get him back."

But they might get another baby panda. Tai Shan's parents, not content to be empty nesters, are now trying to give Tai Shan a little brother or sister.

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    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' chief White House correspondent.