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25 Apr, 2023 16:15

China to bring ‘friendship’ panda home from US

Ya Ya was loaned two decades ago as part of an informal diplomacy program
China to bring ‘friendship’ panda home from US

After spending two decades on loan to the Memphis Zoo as a tool of Beijing’s so-called ‘panda diplomacy’ efforts, Ya Ya – a 22-year-old female giant panda – will be returned to China amid a hail of concern from animal rights and welfare groups over her health. The US zoo denies claims of poor animal care.

Xinhua News Agency reported on Tuesday that Ya Ya “will return to China within the next few days,” citing sources within the country’s National Forestry and Grassland Administration. The decision comes amid outcry from animal welfare watchdog groups In Defense of Animals and Panda Voices, which had issued calls for Ya Ya to be returned home “before her health worsens.”

Some observers had suggested that photos and videos of Ya Ya appeared to show that she was emaciated and was suffering from a skin complaint. It was also claimed that she was displaying unusual, repetitive behavior. The watchdogs had blamed the Memphis Zoo for the February death of Ya Ya’s mate, Le Le. In Defense of Animals said at the time that Le Le’s death had shown the zoo’s “utter inability to properly care for giant pandas.” 

The Memphis Zoo, though, has sternly rejected any claims of the mistreatment of either animal. Its official website describes Ya Ya as exhibiting “outgoing” and “quirky” characteristics, and says that she “enjoys hanging out with her keepers at any time during the day.” 

The zoo announced last December before Le Le’s death that both animals were scheduled to be returned to Shanghai following the completion of a loan program. Preparations have been made to prepare Ya Ya for the journey, which is expected to occur before the end of April.

Beijing has engaged in ‘panda diplomacy’ since 1972, when the country offered two animals to then-US President Richard Nixon. Eighteen countries currently have pandas on loan from China – the only country in the world where the animals exist in a natural habitat.

According to geopolitics expert Matthew Fraser, Beijing traditionally employs panda loans as a means of goodwill or to boost a trade deal. “When China takes back a panda, it is usually because the regime is very displeased for some reason,” he told the New York Times earlier this month.

Relations between Washington and Beijing remain tense over the situation with Taiwan. China views the island as a breakaway province that is part of its sovereign territory. The US diplomatically recognizes Beijing’s ‘One China’ principle but has maintained informal ties with Taipei.