SEPANG: The slight drizzle and cloudy sky aptly reflect the sombre mood among the ground handlers as they gingerly loaded the country's first locally-born panda onto the aircraft headed for her homeland, China on Tuesday.
Nuan Nuan, which means warmth, was born on Aug 18, 2015 to a pair of giant pandas, Xing Xing and Liang Liang, and is on her way to Dujiangyan Panda Base in Sichuan, China.
At 2pm, the 90kg giant panda cub was seen taking a nap in her cage and later became more animated happily eating the bamboo shoots available inside the cage.
The aircraft took off at 5.40pm.
Nuan Nuan is the only animal onboard the aircraft accompanied by Zoology, Veterinary and Giant Panda Conservation Centre director Dr Mat Naim Ramli and another vet Dr Jessie Ho.
MAB Kargo Sdn Bhd (MASkargo) chief executive officer Ahmad Luqman Mohd Azmi said Nuan Nuan was on flight MH6476, an A330-200 freighter, piloted by Captain Ismail Yaakub and co-pilot Shahreen Abu Hassan.
"The four-hour-and-20-minute flight is expected to land at the Shuanglin Airport in Chengdu at 9.55pm.
"In a relationship that augurs well for Malaysia, we are proud to be part of such a significant event.
"It is an honour and a national service for MASkargo to transport one of the national treasures of China to her homeland," Luqman told reporters at the Animal Hotel MASkargo.
The cost involved to fly Nuan Nuan to China was about USD100,000 (RM419,257), he added.
With almost 20 years of experience, MASkargo and its Animal Hotel were well equipped with the expertise and knowledge on live animal handling and transportation, he added.
Earlier, Dr Mat Naim said it took about three months to prepare for Nuan Nuan's trip to her place of origin," he told reporters.
He said Nuan Nuan was a well-behaved giant panda cub that did not give trouble to her keepers.
"All of us who are involved in looking after the cub have developed a close bond with her.
"The most memorable moment I have with her involved a stray cat. Nuan Nuan climbed high to the ceiling and refused to come down for nearly 20 hours.
"We were wondering why she acted up and later at night learned that she was upset by the presence of a stray cat. Once we caught the cat, only then Nuan Nuan came down," he said.
Dr Mat Naim said Nuan Nuan would adapt easily to her new surrounding in China. He pointed out that Nuan Nuan had slight motion sickness while being transported from Zoo Negara.
As for her caretaker, Ahmad Farhan Ahmad Razei, said Nuan Nuan loved playing with her stuffed panda doll when she was small.
He said Nuan Nuan chose the panda doll over other stuffed dolls to play with and cuddle it when she was sleeping.
Now, the baby panda had outgrown her stuffed panda and no longer playing with it, said Farhan.
"Nuan Nuan is a happy baby panda who likes to play. She enjoys playing with balls and even brooms.
"Her favourite food are carrot and panda cake made from among other ingredients, soya beans, corns and rice," he said before the departure of Nuan Nuan.
Farhan added he would greatly miss the panda cub as he had taken care of Nuan Nuan since she was one week old.
The 26-year-old caretaker said he had spent the whole day yesterday to be with the baby panda. He had even made her favourite food.
"I have decided not to go back home yesterday to spend the whole night with her at the zoo," said the caretaker from Serdang.
Farhan said he would miss his daily routine with Nuan Nuan.
"For the past two years, I have been stopping by Nuan Nuan's cage before I start work for the day.
"The baby panda would put out her paw through the bars and I would hold it for a while.
"When I am about to leave for home, I will usually check on her to ensure that she is fine and sleeping well," he said.
Farhan said although he no longer had Nuan Nuan, he still has the baby panda's parents – Xing Xing and Liang Liang – to look after.
"Nuan Nuan has the look of her mother and the demeanour of her father."
The move to send Nuan Nuan back to China is in compliance with the Malaysia-China Giant Panda International Conservation Agreement whereby any panda cub born in Malaysia is to be returned to China upon the age of two.