Ya Ya, the beloved panda, bids farewell to the US, heads home to China

Giant female panda Ya Ya. Picture courtesy of People's Daily.

After an incredible 20 years as an ambassador of friendship in the United States, Ya Ya the female giant panda will soon return to her homeland of China. The National Forestry and Grassland Administration has confirmed that she’ll be hopping on a plane bound for Shanghai in the next few days.

Ya Ya, born on August 3, 2000, at the Beijing Zoo, arrived at the Memphis Zoo back in April 2003 alongside fellow giant panda Le Le. These two cuddly creatures marked a new era of friendship between China and the US, and they were given an incredibly warm welcome upon arrival.

The Memphis Zoo revealed in December 2022 their plans to return Ya Ya to China, concluding two decades of cooperative research. The furry fan favourite has attracted hundreds of visitors, who were given the opportunity to say their goodbyes on April 8 at her special farewell event at the zoo.

Initially, the agreement for Ya Ya to remain in the US was for a 10-year period, but cordial negotiations led to the extension of her stay for another decade back in 2013.

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In February, Chinese experts travelled to Memphis Zoo to conduct a thorough health check of Ya Ya. Results showed some mild hair loss due to a skin condition, but otherwise, her appetite, excrement, and weight were all perfectly normal.

To ensure a smooth transition for Ya Ya, a veterinarian and a keeper from the Beijing Zoo visited Memphis last month, collaborating with experts from the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens to familiarise themselves with her living habits and caretaking processes. They assisted with Ya Ya’s breeding, nursing, and health assessments as final preparations for her return, guaranteeing a safe and comfortable journey home.

Learning the Ropes

Memphis Zoo provided exceptional care for Ya Ya, boasting a sound management system and operating procedures. The Chinese veterinarians and keepers were granted regular updates on Ya Ya’s food intake, excrement, and health examination results.

Preparing for her return to China, the Chinese staff meticulously observed how Ya Ya was fed and cared for in Memphis and even engaged in some interactions with her. To help her quickly adjust to her new environment, they began feeding her biscuits from China and initiated training sessions to help familiarise her with the shipping crate used for her cross-ocean flight.

Lauren Caskey, Associate Curator at Memphis Zoo, explained that Ya Ya’s diet consisted of various types of bamboo with the amounts adjusted based on seasonal availability. Additional treats included sugar canes, grapes, and the aforementioned biscuits. As Ya Ya has aged, extra attention has been given to her unique requirements, with keepers diligently monitoring her diet, as well as her mouth, back, and hands daily.

Ya Ya has become an affectionate figure amongst her caretakers, often displaying a welcoming, relaxed demeanour. Caskey said…

“When Ya Ya sees you, she always comes over to say hi and you actually do see a smile on her face.”

Caskey was pleased with the recent exchanges between the Memphis Zoo and Chinese colleagues, emphasising their shared commitment to Ya Ya’s wellbeing.

She expressed her confidence in Ya Ya’s ability to adjust to her new surroundings.

“Ya Ya is so smart and adaptable, and I know she is gonna do great when she goes back to China.”

So, our furry friend is setting off on her new adventure, leaving behind her Memphis stomping grounds but ready to embrace her homeland once more. It’s a bittersweet goodbye, but the future looks bright for Ya Ya, and we wish her a fond farewell as she embarks on this exciting journey!

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With a Bachelor's Degree in English, Jenn has plenty of experience writing and editing on different topics. After spending many years teaching English in Thailand, Jenn has come to love writing about Thai culture and the experience of being an ex-pat in Thailand. During long holidays, she travels to North of Thailand just to have Khao Soi!

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