MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Visitors at the Memphis Zoo said goodbye Saturday to giant panda Ya Ya during a farewell party ahead of her departure back to China.
Highlighted by Chinese cultural performances, the sendoff marked the end of a 20-year loan agreement with the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens that landed Ya Ya in Memphis. About 500 people attended the event, which featured a demonstration by the Tennessee Happy Kung Fu School.
Ya Ya was born August 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 and died in February ahead of the pair's planned return to China.
Ya Ya will likely head back to China at the end of month, according to zoo spokesperson Rebecca Winchester.
The zoo says the pandas were key to research and conservation projects and helped people experience some of Chinese culture.
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 called Le Le and Ya Ya “two of the most spoiled animals on the planet.”
A memorial for Le Le was on display at the zoo on Saturday.