The U.S. cities of Atlanta and Washington have said their farewells to two popular, beloved giant pandas that were huge tourist attractions, but had to be sent to China under an agreement with Beijing.
Zoo Atlanta sent three-year-old Mei Lan early Thursday. She flew to Washington Dulles International Airport to join 4.5-year-old Tai Shan of the National Zoo for the approximately 14-hour flight to Chengdu, China.
The parents of the two pandas are on loan from China, and an agreement between the zoos and Beijing says any cub born to the pandas must be sent to China.
The National Zoo says millions of people have visited Tai Shan's zoo habitat and many more people around the world have watched the antics of the black-and-white bamboo-eating creature on the zoo's Web cam.
Zoo Atlanta describes the departure as as "bittersweet moment" for the zoo and fans around the world, but a "wonderful moment for giant pandas."
The pandas are traveling in specially designed crates. They are flying to their ancestral homeland on a FedEx plane, nicknamed the "FedEx Panda Express," that has a panda decal.
They are to take part in breeding programs in China.
Zoo Atlanta says giant pandas are critically endangered, with about 1,600 left in the wild and more than 160 in zoos and breeding centers around the world, mostly in China.
Some information for this report was provided by AP.