Visitors watch Bei Bei the giant panda eat bamboo in his enclosure at the National Zoo in Washington, DC on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. They were among the many panda fans to visit Bei Bei in the weeks leading up to his relocation to China on Nov. 19.

Bye Bye, Bei Bei!

On November 19, 2019, Bei Bei the giant panda left the Smithsonian National Zoo for a new home in China. In the weeks leading up to his departure, thousands of visitors descended upon the zoo to see him one last time. Many were Washington, D.C. residents who have watched Bei Bei grow since he was a cub. Others traveled from as far as Europe to wish him well on his journey.

With ten days of non-stop panda-themed festivities, the National Zoo encouraged both visitors and the media to show their appreciation for Bei Bei and his family. Since China first gifted the United States a pair of giant pandas in 1972, the panda program has been one of the zoo’s most popular exhibits, as well as a symbol of goodwill between the two countries. Today, though, that program could be at risk. Bei Bei’s parents, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, are on a long-term lease from the Chinese government, which ends in 2020. Speculation that political tensions between the United States and China could interfere with the lease’s renewal - leaving the zoo with no pandas whatsoever - made many feel the loss of Bei Bei even more acutely.

This story documents the public’s demonstrations of love for Bei Bei’s in the days leading up to his send-off, and attempts to offer a glimpse of how Bei Bei and the rest of the Smithsonian’s panda program have raised a vulnerable species of wildlife into a cultural phenomenon that transcends age or background.

A young man photographs Bei Bei with his smartphone at the National Zoo on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. Visitors arrived at the zoo with a wide array of cameras and recording equipment, ranging from cellphones to professional telephoto gear. A woman stands near Bei Bei's enclosure at the National Zoo on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. Sporting a panda baseball cap, she visited the zoo multiple days during Bei Bei's final week in the United States.

Left:Top: A young man photographs Bei Bei with his smartphone at the National Zoo on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. Visitors arrived at the zoo with a wide array of cameras and recording equipment, ranging from cellphones to professional telephoto gear.

Right:Bottom: A woman stands near Bei Bei's enclosure at the National Zoo on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. Sporting a panda baseball cap, she visited the zoo multiple days during Bei Bei's final week in the United States.

Visitors crowd the fence against Bei Bei's enclosure at the National Zoo on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. Marking the kickoff of the #ByeByeBeiBei celebrations, the zoo gave away panda hats, pins, and other mementos to visitors that day.

Visitors crowd the fence against Bei Bei's enclosure at the National Zoo on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. Marking the kickoff of the #ByeByeBeiBei celebrations, the zoo gave away panda hats, pins, and other mementos to visitors that day.

Leah, a DC area native, hugs her plush panda toy outside the panda habitat at the National Zoo on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. She has visited the pandas at the zoo for her past two birthdays, and came with her parents and grandmother to say goodbye to Bei Bei before he left for China. Elspeth shows off her panda bracelet and scarf outside the Nationa Zoo on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019 while waiting for the truck carrying Bei Bei to the airport to pass by. Elspeth traveled from Scotland to see Bei Bei off on his journey, as she did  for both of his older siblings. She has visited at least five countries, including China, specifically to see pandas at the local zoos.

Left:Top: Leah, a DC area native, hugs her plush panda toy outside the panda habitat at the National Zoo on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. She has visited the pandas at the zoo for her past two birthdays, and came with her parents and grandmother to say goodbye to Bei Bei before he left for China.

Right:Bottom: Elspeth shows off her panda bracelet and scarf outside the Nationa Zoo on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019 while waiting for the truck carrying Bei Bei to the airport to pass by. Elspeth traveled from Scotland to see Bei Bei off on his journey, as she did for both of his older siblings. She has visited at least five countries, including China, specifically to see pandas at the local zoos.

Visitors make their own 'friendship bracelets' featuring gold and red beads and a panda charm on Bei Bei's final weekend at the National Zoo, Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. A zoo volunteer helps tie off a newly completed friendship bracelet at the National Zoo, Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019.

Left:Top: Visitors make their own "friendship bracelets" featuring gold and red beads and a panda charm on Bei Bei's final weekend at the National Zoo, Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019.

Right:Bottom: A zoo volunteer helps tie off a newly completed friendship bracelet at the National Zoo, Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019.

Visitors look towards Bei Bei's habitat at the National Zoo on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. Many guests arrived at the zoo already sporting panda-themed clothing or accessories, such as the knit hat shown. Bei Bei, a four-year-old giant panda, explores his enclosure at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. Under the terms of zoo's agreement with China, Bei Bei, who was born in the United States, had to be sent to China at age four to participate in a breeding program.

Left:Top: Visitors look towards Bei Bei's habitat at the National Zoo on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. Many guests arrived at the zoo already sporting panda-themed clothing or accessories, such as the knit hat shown.

Right:Bottom: Bei Bei, a four-year-old giant panda, explores his enclosure at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. Under the terms of zoo's agreement with China, Bei Bei, who was born in the United States, had to be sent to China at age four to participate in a breeding program.

A videographer, left, coaxes a young girl, right, into saying 'Bye bye, Bei Bei!' for the camera at the National Zoo on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. Reporters from both local and Chinese media outlets turned out to cover Bei Bei's departure. A girl, left, fills out a postcard, while another girl, center, places her completed postcard in the designated box at the National Zoo on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. In Bei Bei's last week at the zoo, the postcard station offered visitors the opportunity to send messages with him to China. A boy, left, fills out a postcard to send with  Bei Bei to China with the help of his father, right, at the National Zoo on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019.

Left:Top: A videographer, left, coaxes a young girl, right, into saying "Bye bye, Bei Bei!" for the camera at the National Zoo on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. Reporters from both local and Chinese media outlets turned out to cover Bei Bei's departure.

Center: A girl, left, fills out a postcard, while another girl, center, places her completed postcard in the designated box at the National Zoo on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. In Bei Bei's last week at the zoo, the postcard station offered visitors the opportunity to send messages with him to China.

Right:Bottom: A boy, left, fills out a postcard to send with Bei Bei to China with the help of his father, right, at the National Zoo on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019.

Two women peruse stuffed animals in a variety of sizes at a gift shop dedicated almost exclusively to panda-themed souvenirs at the National Zoo on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019.

Two women peruse stuffed animals in a variety of sizes at a gift shop dedicated almost exclusively to panda-themed souvenirs at the National Zoo on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019.

Bei Bei departs the zoo on the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019 in one of two identical trucks affectionately referred to by zoo staff as the 'Panda Express.' From the zoo, he was driven to Dulles airport, where he boarded a plane dedicated specifically to transporting him to China.

Bei Bei departs the zoo on the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019 in one of two identical trucks affectionately referred to by zoo staff as the "Panda Express." From the zoo, he was driven to Dulles airport, where he boarded a plane dedicated specifically to transporting him to China.