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

"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.

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