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

Time's up for Washington, D.C.'s furriest celebrity.

Four-year-old Tai Shan, the first surviving Giant Panda born at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, will be sent to the People's Republic of China early next year, zoo officials said today.

Giant Pandas born at the National Zoo belong to China and are supposed to be sent back after their second birthdays for breeding, according to the panda loan agreement between the Chinese government and zoo officials.

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Tai Shan was granted a two-year extension in April 2007 but will not be allowed to stay with his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, who will remain at the Washington zoo until December 2010, barring any future negotiations.

While all of Washington will surely mourn the day they have to bid farewell to the beloved Tai Shan, there is perhaps nobody sadder to see him go than Lisa Stevens.

Stevens, the primate curator at the National Zoo, has raised Tai Shan since he was born and has spent nearly every day with the panda.

"I feel sad," Stevens told ABCNews.com. "I feel that now I have to enjoy every day I have left with him."

Tai Shan, who weighs 190 pounds, has developed a personality of his own, Stevens said, and is confident and flexible, characteristics that she says will help him adjust to life in China.

"He deals with change very well so we're confident that he'll transition back to China easily," Stevens said.

As for Tai Shan's favorite pastimes, Stevens said, he likes to "eat and sleep, with an emphasis on sleep."

Indeed, Tai Shan slept through most of the news conference this morning announcing his upcoming journey to China.

The Chinese Embassy in the United States did not return messages for comment.

Giant Panda Tai Shan Is One of D.C.'s Most Sought-After Celebs

"Tai Shan is a fixture here, he is a celebrity," Stevens said. "Because he was born on our Web cam, people have been able to follow him from birth onward. They became connected to him.

"People know the history of the pandas here and all of the years we tried to produce a cub and they didn't survive," she said, referencing the first pandas given to the zoo by China in 1973, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, who never had a cub survive more than a few days. "Everyone was rooting for Tai Shan."

Tens of millions of people visit the panda cam on the zoo's Web site annually to catch a glimpse of Tai Shan and his parents roaming around their enclosure, according to zoo officials,

Millions more visit Washington for in-person visits with the fuzzy creatures and lines to the panda exhibit often stretch around the zoo, Stevens said.

Tai Shan's face has adorned everything from postage stamps to a special line of merchandise at the zoo's boutique and the panda can even put "documentary star" on his resume. "A Panda is Born," a documentary about the National Zoo's panda breeding program, features Tai Shan.

"His identity extends well beyond Washington, D.C.," Stevens said. "He's the nation's cub."

Pandas Such as Tai Shan Have a Long History in U.S. Culture

Jan Berris, the vice president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, said pandas have been capturing the hearts of Americans since they were first gifted to the national zoo in 1973, after President Richard Nixon traveled to China.

"China gave two Giant Pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, to the U.S. as gifts of the Chinese government in the 1970s to try and open up exchanges between the two countries," Berris said.

"They're just so cute and cuddly and adorable and were a way for China to show a side of the country that people weren't really seeing in the late '60s and early '70s. The pandas were a huge hit wherever they went."

This so-called panda diplomacy has morphed from a gift-giving procedure to a loan program because of the animal's shrinking numbers. Only 1,600 exist in the wild and there are barely more than 200 in captivity worldwide.

Apart from the National Zoo in Washington, three other U.S. zoos house pandas, including those in Atlanta, Memphis and San Diego.

Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented on Tai Shan's imminent departure, gasping "Oh no!" when she heard the news.

Asked if this was a setback for US-China relations, she joked "I can't talk about it I'm too upset right now."

Washington-area native Kenney Reyna, 26, and his girlfriend visited the zoo today to say goodbye to Tai Shan.

"We came here today because one of the pandas is leaving soon to go to China," he said, adding that he has been fond of the D.C. pandas since he first saw the creatures when he was 5 or 6.

"I feel like I didn't go here enough," he said. "They're a unique creature; exciting to see up close in person."

Julie, an advertising executive who asked that her last name not be used, is such a big panda fan that she regularly logs on to the zoo's Web site to see what the bears are doing.

"Usually, they're eating or sleeping," she said. "Not a lot of excitement."

Of Tai Shan, Julie said, "It's sad he has to return but, look, we knew they'd have to go."

Preparing for the Panda's Farewell

So how exactly does a panda like Tai Shan get back to China?

A special crate designed for the flight will be provided for Tai Shan and he will be prepared for the journey in the coming weeks, Stevens said.

"The way we raised him prepared him for change," Stevens said. "He's used to construction noise because of things going on at the zoo around him, so airport noise won't be a big deal."

"He's had adoring crowds his whole life, so he's used to a lot of people being around him. His departure will be hardest on us."

The last time a panda was shipped from China was in 2007, when two Giant Pandas were flown from Beijing to the Memphis Zoo. Even the shipment of the pandas became an issue of public interest, with FedEx providing a tracking tool on its Web site so fans could know the pandas' whereabouts at all points of their journey.

Stevens said that while Americans will still be able to see Tai Shan's mother and father at the zoo for another year, as well as others in captivity around the country, this particular panda's departure will be emotional for many people.

"Everyone who is attached to him will enjoy the time we have left with him and will cherish and savor the moments up until he leaves," Stevens said. "I think that in the end, we will celebrate a safe journey back to China and entering his next stage into panda program.

"As long as he has bamboo and other treats for him," she said, "he'll be just fine."

ABC News' Devin Dwyer contributed to this report.