Washington Bids a Bittersweet Farewell to Beloved Panda

The goodbye party was not scheduled to start until 11a.m. but the guests began arriving hours early.

On a cold, snowy Saturday, panda fans from all around the country came to the National Zoo in Washington to bid a fond and final farewell to the guest of honor - Tai Shan, Washington's beloved panda cub.

Bundled up visitors huddled in front of his zoo habitat, hoping to snap one more picture of the panda affectionately known as "Butterstick," because of the description doctors gave of his diminutive size when he was born in 2005.

Today is the last day to see Tai Shan at the National Zoo but the goodbyes started as soon as the zoo announced that the four and a half year old panda was going to move to China where he will take part in a global conservation program for pandas. Tai Shan has been on loan to the United States as part of a deal with China.

VIDEO: Giant Panda Tai Shan Will Leave the National Zoo for China Early Next Year

Conservationists estimate that there are currently only 1,600 pandas worldwide remaining in the wild and about 200 in captivity. Only three other zoos in the United States have giant pandas – San Diego, Atlanta and Memphis.

Tai Shan is now old enough to breed and the Chinese are eager for him to join their program to try and increase the population

On Thursday, Tai Shan will board a charter plane provided by FedEx and make the 14.5-hour flight to China. The panda will live at the China Conservation and Research Center's Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan, China, where the hope is that he will successfully breed.

The National Zoo planned an elaborate farewell to mark Tai Shan's last weekend in the United States, complete with balloons and cake and a carnival-like atmosphere. The bitter temperatures and falling snow did nothing to deter his admirers.

VIDEO; Giant Panda Tai Shan Will Leave the National Zoo for China Early Next Year

"My two daughters are very devastated the panda is leaving," Pam Gaston of Stafford, Va., told ABC News. "So they said they had to come and see him before he leaves."

Pam's daughters, Sydney and Lexi, said that Tai Shan was the cutest animal at the zoo and their favorite.

"He's special, he's really cute," Sydney said. "I think it's sad but it's good that he's going back to make more pandas."

DC Mayor Adrian Fenty once called Tai Shan the city's most important citizen – a distinguished title given the power brokers that call the District home.

Video: The National zoo in Washington hopes for a new baby panda.

The panda has drawn millions of visitors to the zoo and is one of the most popular attractions. Tens of millions of fans have clicked on the live panda cam on the zoo's web site. The site is so popular that visitors are only able to view the live video for five minutes at a time to give as many people possible a chance to catch a glimpse of the panda.

China owns all of the giant pandas currently in American zoos, but Tai Shan is a native Washingtonian, born at the National Zoo in 2005.

His parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, arrived here in Dec. 2000 and reside at the Zoo as part of a $10 million, 10-year loan from China. That zoo is hoping to start negotiating for an extension this spring to keep the two adult pandas in the United States.

VIDEO: 5-month-old panda named Yun Zi is ready to meet the public at the San Diego Zoo.

Tai Shan was scheduled to move to China when he turned two in 2007, but China granted the National Zoo two extensions which allowed the animal to remain in Washington three extra years.

The zoo asked if he could stay for another year, but the Chinese said no, it is time for him to come to China and start to procreate.

During his farewell party, the panda didn't put on much of a show for the gathering crowds.

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