Giant pandas YaYa and LeLe will soon return to their homeland of China, according to a statement on Wednesday from the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee.
“After two decades, Memphis Zoo’s current giant panda loan agreement with the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens will end, and YaYa and LeLe will make the journey back to China within the next few months,” the zoo said.
The news has been welcomed by animal rights groups In Defense of Animals (IDA) and Panda Voices, who have been campaigning for the pandas’ release for nearly two years.
In 2003, the female giant panda YaYa and male LeLe were shipped from China to Memphis Zoo in the United States. However, their living conditions have been the subject of much criticism, with the pandas suffering from malnutrition and lacking stimulation in their tiny enclosure. YaYa (22) has a chronic skin condition, and LeLe (24) has teeth issues.
IDA posted a video in February that showed the giant pandas Yaya and Lele pacing in circles around their enclosure as proof they were suffering from “physical, mental, and emotional deprivation.” It gained thousands of likes and was retweeted by American singer Billie Eilish.
“After far too many years of suffering in a grossly inappropriate zoo exhibit, YaYa and LeLe will finally get improved care at a specialized panda refuge in their homeland,” Brittany Michelson, captive animals campaigner for In Defense of Animals, said.
“We applaud the Memphis Zoo and Chinese authorities for making the ethical decision to return the pandas to China once the loan contract ends in April 2023,” she added.
“We are overwhelmed with joy at the news of YaYa and LeLe returning home to China! We thank the Memphis Zoo for allowing this to happen and hope they provide the pandas the conditions they need to be fit to endure the long travel,” Taciana Santiago of Panda Voices said.
Giant pandas are considered a vulnerable species, with much of their natural habitat in southwest China under threat from deforestation.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, about 1,800 giant pandas are left in the wild and another 500 in zoos worldwide. There are still ten giant pandas in American zoos.