The first US-born panda is returning to its ancestral homeland next week after spending more than four years as a mega star at the San Diego Zoo.
The giant panda, Hua Mei, or China USA in Chinese, is scheduled to arrive in Beijing on February 12 and join some 70 pandas at the Wolong Giant Panda Protection Research Centre in Southwest China's Sichuan Province the next day.
Her return was delayed twice over two years, once because of poor weather and the other time because of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak.
Two experts from the Wolong Centre arrived in California on Saturday to prepare Hua Mei for her trip home.
"The panda's living and eating habits will not be that different when she returns to China, except for the jet lag," an expert said.
The panda will need to hibernate at least two days -- but bears will be bears -- to adjust to the more than 10 hours' time difference.
In terms of food, Hua Mei will have to change her Golden Arrow Bamboo staple food, to a new a variety for her, the Walking Stick Bamboo or Mercy Bamboo seen in Wolong.
The temperature in Wolong is 7 C to 10 C lower than in San Diego. But Zhang Hemin, director of Wolong Administrative Bureau said Hua Mei will soon adjust to it because pandas prefer colder climates.
To make Hua Mei feel welcome back at home, panda experts have prepared a comfortable nest and a 100-square metre playground for her.
At the San Diego Zoo, fans who have followed Hua Mei since she was born began to give their final farewells after the word got out among the panda's faithful that Hua Mei was leaving.
Ten-year-old Madison Jones offered her a goodbye as Hua Mei stretched out lazily and dozed happily atop a tree branch: "I hope you have fun the rest of your life.
"I find it kind of sad," the Washington Post quoted the San Diego girl as saying, "because she looks happy."
Carla Schwartz, a retired San Diego school teacher, said she had visited Hua Mei during the panda's infancy and often followed her on the zoo's "Panda Cam" website.
"I have kind of a lump in my throat. It's so sad," she said.
The extra time Hua Mei had in San Diego made it more difficult to say goodbye, she said.
"Two years ago we all said goodbye, but then she stayed and stayed and stayed. Now it's harder because we're more attached to her."
Panda fans had lined up to see the playful black-and-white bear in the summer of 2002 when the zoo announced that Hua Mei soon would leave.
The 12-year loan agreement that brought her parents to San Diego in 1996 mandates that any offspring be sent to China after the bears turn 3 years old.
Giant pandas are highly endangered due to loss of their native habitat. Only about 1,000 of them are thought to live in the wild. About 150 others live in captivity, with less than 20 outside of China.