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Memphis Zoo bids farewell to panda before returning to China

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Visitors to the Memphis Zoo said goodbye to giant panda Ya Ya during a farewell party Saturday before their departure back to China.

Accompanied by Chinese cultural performances, the farewell marked the end of a 20-year loan deal with the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens that landed Ya Ya in Memphis. About 500 people attended the event, which included a performance by the Tennessee Happy Kung Fu School.

Ya Ya was born on August 3, 2000 in Beijing. She was joined in Memphis as part of the loan deal by Le Le, a male panda who was born on July 18, 1998 and died in February ahead of the couple’s scheduled return to China.

Ya Ya is expected to return to China at the end of the month, according to zoo spokeswoman Rebecca Winchester.

The zoo says the pandas have been key to research and conservation projects, and helped people learn about a part of Chinese culture.

The life expectancy of a giant panda in the wild is about 15 years, but in captivity they lived up to 38 years. Decades of conservation efforts in the wild and captive studies have saved the giant panda species from extinction, increasing their population from fewer than 1,000 at one time to more than 1,800 in the wild and in captivity.

Advocacy groups In Defense of Animals and Panda Voices previously welcomed the return to China, saying the pandas suffered at the zoo. Zoo officials said the groups were spreading false information. Zoo President and CEO Matt Thompson called Le Le and Ya Ya “two of the most spoiled animals in the world.”

A memorial to Le Le was on display at the zoo on Saturday.