US-born panda Bei Bei arrives in new China home

US-born giant panda Bei Bei returned to China on a special cargo plane dubbed the 'Panda Express'

The US-born giant panda Bei Bei has arrived in southwestern China after a 16-hour flight, with plenty of bamboo for him to munch on as he settled into his new home.

The four-year-old cub, whose name means "precious, treasure" in Mandarin, appeared to be contentedly eating and ambling around his new cage at a research centre in Sichuan province, according to images broadcast Thursday by state broadcaster CGTN.

Bei Bei travelled aboard a specially outfitted Boeing 777F cargo plane called the "Panda Express" -- paid for by FedEx -- accompanied by his keeper from the National Zoo in Washington and more than 70 pounds of bamboo and other treats.

China lends pandas to zoos around the world -- a programme dubbed "panda diplomacy".

Once young pandas reach the age of four, they are repatriated to breed with other pandas at sanctuaries in China. The animals are considered "vulnerable" to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Bei Bei was welcomed "home" on Thursday with a ceremony at the Bifengxia Panda Base in Sichuan, local media reported.

Fans had lined up at the National Zoo -- the only home Bei Bei had ever known before his return to China -- to bid the cub farewell ahead of his departure.

His siblings, brother Tai Shan and sister Bao Bao, have already been returned to China, while his father Tian Tian and mother Mei Xiang -- both born in China -- will remain at the National Zoo until at least December 2020.

Bei Bei was born in August 2015, and his name was announced with great fanfare at an event with then-first lady Michelle Obama and her Chinese counterpart Peng Liyuan.