MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Ya Ya the giant panda began its trip to China on Wednesday from the Memphis Zoo, where it has spent the past 20 years as part of a loan agreement.
The zoo said Ya Ya was being accompanied on its return to China by a veterinarian who will manage the panda's medical needs and a zoological officer who will handle all husbandry requirements.
The departure marks the end of a 20-year loan agreement with the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens Ya Ya in Memphis.
Ya Ya was born Aug. 3, 2000, in Beijing. She was joined in Memphis under the loan agreement by Le Le, a male panda who was born July 18, 1998. Le Le died in February.
The zoo held a farewell party for Ya Ya earlier this month. The zoo has said the pandas were key to research and conservation projects and helped people experience some of Chinese culture.
“After 20 years, Ya Ya has become like family, and she will be sorely missed by the Memphis Zoo staff and the local community,” the zoo said in a statement Wednesday. “We wish her the best of luck in her new home.”
The life expectancy of a giant panda in the wild is about 15 years, but in captivity they have lived to be as old as 38. Decades of conservation efforts in the wild and study in captivity saved the giant panda species from extinction, increasing its population from fewer than 1,000 at one time to more than 1,800 in the wild and captivity.
Advocacy groups In Defense of Animals and Panda Voices previously applauded the return to China, saying the pandas had been suffering in the zoo setting. Zoo officials said the groups were spreading false information. Zoo President and CEO Matt Thompson has called Le Le and Ya Ya “two of the most spoiled animals on the planet.”