Giant panda LeLe dies at Memphis zoo, months before his return to China

Giant panda Lele dies at Memphis zoo, months before his return to China
Giant panda LeLe, Memphis Zoo, November 1, 2022, credit: Reuters/Karen Pulfer Focht

Giant panda LeLe has died at age 24 at Memphis zoo in the United States. The panda died in his sleep on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the zoo said during a press conference on Friday. Lele was going to return to China in April.

“At this time, we do not know the cause of death,” the spokesperson said, adding that an autopsy would be performed at a not yet determined date. The spokesperson said there was “no indication that he was sick” and that his death was “sudden and unexpected.”

LeLe was born in Chongqing Zoo in China on 18 July 1998. His mom was Xin Xing, who died at age 38 at Chongqing Zoo, and his dad was Chuan Chuan, who died at age 30 in Shanghai. 

In 2003, the male giant panda LeLe was shipped with the female giant panda YaYa from China to Memphis Zoo. But over the years, their living conditions received much criticism.

Animal rights groups Panda Voices and In Defense of Animals (IDA) have been campaigning for the giant pandas’ release for nearly three years; the animals have very little space, not enough food (bamboo), are mistreated, have skin mite disease and dental problems, and are visibly distressed.

In 2019, Memphis Zoo admitted that it doesn’t always have enough bamboo to feed the giant pandas and requested the public to donate bamboo.

In February 2022, IDA posted a video showing the giant pandas pacing in circles around their enclosure, proving they were suffering from “physical, mental, and emotional deprivation.” 

“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, IDA captive animals campaigner, said in December when the zoo announced the giant pandas would be sent back to China.

LeLe on camera
Panda Voices has been following the giant pandas daily on Memphis zoo cameras. They noticed LeLe wasn’t eating, and his ribs were showing on camera. He looked very weak and sleepy: “He (Lele) tried many times in the past 7 hours to stand up and beg for food. But he got nothing except for the inedible hard culms. LeLe can’t eat those culms and has to spend helpless time in excessive sleep.”

“We saw Lele struggle to sit up and hold his stomach. It seems he got an upset stomach. He tried to take some bamboo to gain energy. But he couldn’t even take a bite and then pushed all the bamboo away dismally. He leaned against the stone for a short while, then put out his force to hold the bamboo. Sadly, our poor boy has no strength. He fell on the ground, rolling, and then lay still weakly,” Panda Voices said a week ago.

The organization was very scared for his health and contacted the zoo when they didn’t see LeLe on camera. “It is with a heavy heart that we acknowledge King LeLe has passed on to Panda Planet. We have fought very hard to bring awareness and change to the lives of giant pandas worldwide. That fight began with LeLe and YaYa at the Memphis Zoo,” Tom Clemenson, a spokesperson for Panda Voices, told The Animal Reader on Friday.

“Our dedication of the past three years was to prevent both pandas from dying at Memphis Zoo. Today we accept an unfortunate reality. In the name of LeLe, we continue the fight to save YaYa,” he said, adding that a full investigation will follow.

The news has saddened panda fans all over the world. “This news breaks my heart. We were looking forward to his (Lele) return to Sichuan in April. Panda fans have long known that his health is poor, but the Memphis Zoo is not giving them adequate medical care and is unwilling to send them back to Sichuan,” Chinapandafanlily said on Instagram.

Giant pandas are among the world’s most beloved and recognizable animals. There are less than 1000 wild giant pandas left in the world, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

China has been loaning pandas to foreign zoos since 1950, so-called panda diplomacy. Animal rights organizations have long questioned the practice of ‘gifting animals’.

Lele lived his whole life in captivity. The zoo said Yaya will return to China in April.


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