South Koreans bid tearful farewell to beloved panda Fu Bao

Fu Bao, a giant panda who became an internet sensation in South Korea, is being sent to a Chinese breeding program. Her two younger sisters who were born last year, will remain in South Korea for the time being.

South Koreans bid tearful farewell to beloved panda Fu Bao

South Koreans bid farewell on Wednesday to Fu Bao, the first giant panda born in the country, as she left the zoo where she was born in 2020 to be flown to China in a tearful send-off by a large crowd of fans braving steady rain.

Zoo keepers thanked the panda cub for bringing joy and the fans for the love they had shown Fu Bao in the four years she spent growing up at the Everland zoo. She was then put on a climate-controlled truck to take her to the airport.

A crowd of thousands gathered at an amusement park in South Korea on Wednesday to bid farewell to the beloved giant panda, Fu Bao.

Fu Bao, which means "treasure that gives happiness," enjoys a very high popularity in South Korea. Her videos on YouTube have fetched around 500 million views.

Fu Bao's many well-wishers came out despite the rainy weather and some were seen crying as they wished her farewell.

The first giant panda to be born in South Korea, Fu Bao, was sent to China in a vibration-free vehicle typically used for transporting semiconductors.

The truck carrying Fu Bao was decorated with a picture of her and a message that said: "It was a miracle that we met you. Thank you, Fu Bao."

She was transported to Incheon International Airport to be flown to China on a chartered plane at which point she is set to be taken to the Shenshuping Panda Base in Sichuan Province.

The Panda had been a major attraction at the Everland amusement park near Seoul ever since she was born in 2020. The staff at the park said that approximately 5.5 million people — around one-tenth of the entire South Korean population — have paid a visit to the park to see her.

Because of Fu Bao, footfall at the Everland's Panda World doubled last year to 2.15 million.

Zookeeper Kang Cheol-won, who also gained fame for his deep connection with the zoo's pandas, read out a letter in front of the around 6,000 people who turned up for the ceremony.

"You will be forever our baby panda, even after 10 or 100 years. Thank you for coming to grandpa. I love you Fu Bao," Kang said, referring to himself as her grandpa.

Kang also accompanied Fu Bao on her journey.

China's "Panda Diplomacy"

Her parents Ai Bao and Le Bao were gifted by Chinese President Xi Jinping to South Korea in 2016.

China only sends pandas to foreign zoos as a sign of goodwill but with the condition that any offspring they produce are sent to China to be part of its breeding program a few years after their birth. 

According to the agreement, Fu Bao's parents can stay in South Korea until 2031. Her sisters Rui Bao and Hui Bao, twins who were born last year, will also stay in Korea for the time being, but will be recalled to China before they turn four.

It has taken decades of conservation efforts to save the species from extinction. The panda population has increased from a low of fewer than 1,000 to more than 1,800 — including those in the wild and in captivity.