By Laila Kearney
(Reuters) - Bao Bao, the 3-year-old giant panda who rose to fame while growing up on live video at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, will be flown to her new home in China on Tuesday under a long-standing breeding and research program.
Bao Bao will take off on a Boeing 777F freighter aircraft, customized with an image of a giant panda emblazoned on its side, from Dulles International Airport in Virginia for Chengdu, China in the afternoon, the zoo said in a statement.
With her will be handlers as well as 55 pounds of bamboo and several more pounds of biscuits, sweet potatoes and sugarcane.
Bao Bao was born at the zoo on Aug. 23, 2013 to mother Mei Xiang and father Tian Tian, who were loaned to the zoo as part of an agreement with the Chinese Wildlife Conservation Association.
Under the deal, all cubs born at the National Zoo must move to China by the time they reach 4 years old for breeding and research.
The National Zoo received its first pair of giant pandas in 1972 as a gift from the Chinese government to commemorate President Richard Nixon's landmark visit to China. That pair, female Ling-Ling and male Hsing-Hsing, lived at the zoo for more than 20 years, but produced no surviving cubs.
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian produced their first surviving cub on July 9, 2005, named Tai Shan, who left for China's Wolong Nature Reserve some four years later.
Bao Bao drew an international audience as the star of the zoo "panda cam," which documented her birth and childhood for millions of fans worldwide.
Admirers have included former first lady Michelle Obama, who sent a message to the giant panda cub on the day she was born.
In the week leading up to her departure, fans were allowed to observe Bao Bao as she was plied with her favorite treats, including ice cakes made of frozen fruit juices and vegetables.
The zoo, which is open to the public every day except Dec. 25, said it would close the first half of Tuesday for Bao Bao's departure.
Bao Bao's younger brother, Bei Bei, and parents will remain at the zoo as part of its breeding program, which runs until December 2020.
(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jonathan Oatis)