Countdown starts for giant panda Ya Ya's return to China from US

Two more Chinese giant panda experts arrived in the US city of Memphis on Thursday to prepare for the return of 22-year-old Ya Ya to China, according to the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens.

The two Beijing Zoo staff members, a veterinary surgeon and a zookeeper with extensive experience in caring for captive pandas, join a Chinese team who had been at the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee to assess Ya Ya's condition.

"[The Chinese team] will work with American counterparts to take care of Ya Ya and assess her health. They will also fine tune preparations for her safe return to China," the association said.

Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.

Ya Ya and her mate Le Le were due to return to China early this year when a 20-year loan agreement ended. However, Le Le died of heart disease on February 1 at the US zoo.

China sent experts to the zoo to work with an American team to investigate the cause of the death.

Chinese experts said Ya Ya had some hair loss caused by skin disease. Previous medical reports indicated she had a good appetite and a stable weight.

The Memphis Zoo applied for a permit to re-export Ya Ya and the remains of Le Le to the Shanghai Zoo in China "for the purpose of enhancing the propagation or survival of the species", according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Under the US Endangered Species Act, the application notice will be open for public comment for one month until April 12 before permits can be issued.

A spokesman for the US zoo told Reuters late last year that the return was part of an agreement with China that required foreign zoos to allow loaned pandas to spend their final days on Chinese soil.

Shanghai News Radio reported that Ya Ya would spend more than a month in quarantine in Shanghai before flying to the Chinese capital, where an enclosure was being built for her.

It quoted a Beijing Park Management Centre staff member as saying that it was not certain that Ya Ya could return to China on April 7, when her loan agreement expired.

Animal rights groups had claimed the zoo was mistreating the pandas, claims the Memphis Zoo rejected. The zoo also denied the return of the pandas was related to the claims.

For decades, China has sent pandas overseas as a diplomatic tool to strengthen ties. In 1972, after US president Richard Nixon met Chinese leader Mao Zedong, China gave pandas Ling Ling and Xing Xing to the United States.

Most pandas go to developed countries with geopolitical clout that can pay the panda leasing fees of up to US$1 million annually and cover the cost of their special enclosures and diet.

The top panda recipients in 2019 - the US with 11, Japan with nine and South Korea with four - were also among China's biggest trading partners.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2023 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.