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(Reuters) - Washington's National Zoo will lavish its giant panda Bao Bao with exotic treats and mementos of her time in the nation's capital before she departs for China next week, as part of a breeding programme to diversify the gene pool of the vulnerable species.
The 3-year-old panda, the first surviving cub born at the zoo since 2005, will leave the National Zoo on Tuesday, in keeping an agreement with the Chinese Wildlife Conservation Association, the zoo said in a statement on Thursday.
The programme calls for panda cubs born at the zoo to be sent to China before they reach the age of four. Bao Bao is the first to make the trip under the current agreement, signed in 2015.
Giant pandas, which are native to China, are classified as a vulnerable species. There are about 1,800 of them living in the wild and another 300 in captivity.
Bao Bao achieved international fame as the star of the zoo's "panda cam," which documented her birth and childhood for millions of fans worldwide. Michelle Obama, the former first lady, sent a video message to Bao Bao on Aug. 23, 2013, the panda's birthday.
Before Bao Bao's departure, her handlers will treat her to an assortment of special snacks that range from dumplings to a heart-shaped ice cake. She'll also receive a cache of mementos from zoo officials to remind the panda of her birthplace.
The National Zoo received its first pair of giant pandas in 1972 as a gift from the Chinese government to commemorate President Richard Nixon's landmark visit to China, the zoo said on its website.
Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing lived at the National Zoo for more than 20 years and produced five cubs, none of which survived.
Bao Bao is the offspring of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the National Zoo's second pair of giant pandas, loaned from China in 2000.
The couple produced the zoo's first surviving cub on July 9, 2005, named Tai Shan, who left for China's Wolong Nature Reserve some four years later.
The National Zoo's agreement with China to exchange giant pandas for research and breeding will run until December 2020.
In addition to watching Bao Bao enjoy her treats, fans of the panda will be able to view live videos from the sendoff party. The videos will include footage of the panda's handlers packing for Bao Bao's trip, as well as a training session in which the panda is taught how to behave during veterinary exams.
Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Frank McGurty and Bernadette Baum