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 YearPlay

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 YearPlay

"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.Play

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.Play

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.

Tai Shan did what he always does - sat around, ate bamboo, walked around a bit and relished the freezing temperatures and accumulating snow. That was enough for his fans.

Scott DeLong, 16 years old and from Albany, N.Y., told ABC News that he is "obsessed basically" with the panda cub.

VIDEO: Baby Panda Makes His Public DebutPlay

"Tai Shan is kind of like Washington's rose. He represents 30 years of hard work that the National Zoo has done in their breeding program to save this endangered species," DeLong said. "We need to say goodbye to him. He has added significance to this zoo."

The overwhelming consensus among panda watchers, from adults to children, this week has been that Tai Shan's departure for China is bittersweet – sad, of course, because of the loss of the beloved animal, but happy because if he is successful in this next stage of his life, there will be more pandas in the future.

Don Moore, the acting director of the National Zoo, said Tai Shan was like family.

VIDEO: David Muir visits six panda cubs who survived a massive earthquake.Play

"It's kinda like sending your kid off to college and knowing that your child is going to be a human breeder eventually too," he said. "We'll miss him but we know he is going on to something more important, another phase in his life, to get a girlfriend, have babies of his own."

Yasmin Helpeling, an eight-year-old from Bethesda, Md., said she has seen Tai Shan 12 times at the zoo because "they're cool and they're fun to see."

She was taking the imminent departure in stride.

"It's sort of happy because he's really from China. It's okay for him to go back," she told ABC News on Saturday.

VIDEO: David Muir visits six panda cubs who survived a massive earthquake.Play

Tai Shan's fans, though reluctant to say goodbye, focused on the positive.

"He'll be in his natural habitat and hopefully he'll help the species and maybe we'll get some more here," said Jennifer Bickford of Bowie Md.

"Hopefully he'll help promulgate his species," said Timothy McGrath of New York City. "And they'll get to see what a charm he is and hopefully he'll bring joy to people there that he's brought here."

"We're all very sad to see him go," said Brandie Smith, senior curator of the Smithsonian National Zoo. "But we're so excited he's going to China to be part of the breeding program and to fill the world with more pandas."

VIDEO: Should We Let the Pandas Die?Play

Tai Shan's fans congregated outside his habitat, standing half a dozen deep, and yelled their goodbyes.

They sent him off with some words of encouragement as he heads off to his new adventure.

"Have fun in China!" said one onlooker.

"And find a girl!" said another

ABC News' Stephanie Sy and John Hendren contributed to this report.