Of the 4 million-plus deliveries that FedEx will make on February 21, only one will get its own plane. Bao Bao, a three-year-old giant panda who currently lives at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., will be shipped to China in a custom shipping crate marked “Contents: One Panda.”
“With any kind of live animal shipment, there’s obviously a little more planning than moving hard cargo,” says Dave Lange, managing director for FedEx Charters, who helps lead a team planning flights for horses, whales, dolphins, and, in the past, 12 other giant pandas.
All pandas in zoos around the world are on loan from China, which brings each panda back before the age of four to be bred in a conservation program. (Bao Bao was born at the National Zoo, but, as the offspring of Chinese pandas, is still part of the program.) FedEx is partnering with the zoo to make the delivery as painless as possible.
“We have panda catering on the flight,” Lange says. A cargo container, separate from Bao Bao, will hold 55 pounds of fresh bamboo, two bags of soy-based “leaf-eater biscuits,” two pounds of apples, two pounds of cooked sweet potatoes, and 10 gallons of water.
A keeper and veterinarian from the zoo will travel along with the panda to keep her as safe and comfortable as possible. For the last several months, they’ve been gradually helping her become accustomed to being inside the shipping crate, giving her treats as she walked through it, and then eventually closing the door.
“We’ve actually just started closing her inside the crate, and she seems to not mind that at all,” says Laurie Thompson, assistant curator of giant pandas at the National Zoo. “Sometimes we actually have a hard time getting her to leave when we’re finished with the training.”
On previous flights, other pandas haven’t shown signs of stress; Bao Bao is likely to spend her time on the plane eating and sleeping, as she normally would. The crate also has toys. “I think probably the hardest part will be adjusting to the jet lag when she gets there,” says Thompson.
A team at FedEx is carefully planning a route that will be as short as possible–16 hours, nonstop from D.C. to Chengdu–with a gentle takeoff and landing. The departure and arrival times were also carefully planned to avoid the most traffic, so Bao Bao can make it to and from the airport as easily as possible.
On the flight, the keepers will be able to request changes in temperature to keep the panda comfortable. “The biggest challenge is just making sure that we have all the climate control and all the other issues that you have to deal with when you’re dealing with a passenger,” says Lange. “Normally, most of the business we do is on the cargo side.”
While it’s not a standard shipment for FedEx, they’ve done it before. In 2000, the company delivered Bao Bao’s parents to the National Zoo from China. Three years later, they delivered another pair of pandas to the Memphis Zoo. In 2010, they returned two panda cubs to China; one was Bao Bao’s brother, Tai Shan. This will be the first panda shipment since then.
After Bao Bao arrives in China, she will eventually be bred and could have offspring that are reintroduced into the wild in China. China has been able to breed enough baby pandas to provide sufficient genetic variation to begin releasing them into the wild, and some panda cubs are now being raised in semi-wild environments so they can be released.
“Our pandas would never be released into the wild, because they were born in a zoo and would not be equipped to go into the wild,” says Thompson. “The hope is that eventually [Bao Bao’s] cubs or maybe her grandchildren will be able to be put into the wild.”
Although the panda is no longer classified as endangered (as of 2016), it’s still listed as “vulnerable,” at risk from continuing loss of habitat, climate change, and disease. There are an estimated 1,800 pandas left in the wild, and around 300 in captivity.
FedEx is donating the delivery to help support the species, as it has done for other rare animals delivered from zoos and aquariums around the world.
[All Photos (unless otherwise noted): via Smithsonian’s National Zoo]