Bangkok (AFP) – A celebrity panda, whose exploits were avidly followed in Thailand on a 24-hour television channel, left the kingdom Saturday in search of a mate in China, her zookeeper said.
Linping, who has drawn around 2.5 million people to Chiang Mai zoo since she was born in 2009, was flown from the northern Thai city to Chengdu in China where she will meet six male giant pandas within her age range.
More than 200 adoring Thai fans accompanied the bear on a Thai Airways flight to China, where she will set up temporary home in the Wolong nature reserve.
"She will be in China for one year to select her mate," said Tanapattara Pongpamorn, director of Chiang Mai zoo.
"She must like her mate too otherwise they will hurt each other."
The beloved bear has been loaned by Chinese authorities to the kingdom. Under the deal Linping will return to Thailand next year with her mate -- if she finds one -- he added.
Hundreds of Thais, many in Linping T-shirts, turned out to bid the four-year-old panda farewell -- with some preparing a mock dowry of fruit for the bear -- while social media was awash with soppy farewells to the creature.
Linping is a national star in Thailand. A live 24-hour "Panda Channel" followed her every move for a number of years, while a competition to name her in 2009 attracted 22 million entries.
Her name means "forest of ice" in Chinese and is based on her mother's name Linhui (beautiful forest) and the name of the Ping River in Chiang Mai.
Giant pandas, notorious for their low sex drive in captivity, are considered endangered -- about 1,600 are believed to survive in the wild in China.