largee music method “happy happy,” but the giant panda known by that name appears sad. Last year, animal rights groups accused the Memphis Zoo of neglecting the bear and its female companion, Yaya. In February, Lele died, apparently of a heart attack. Yaya (meaning “cute girl”) doesn’t look so cute now. She has been losing her hair, which has raised concerns about her health.
It’s not just animal lovers who are distressed. The bears were borrowed from China as part of the country’s “panda diplomacy”. Chinese nationalists claim that anti-China sentiment in the US fuels abuse. “When even giant pandas are affected, it shows that China —us Relationships are really bad,” Global Timesa nationalist tabloid.
China launched an online campaign to bring Yaya home. A huge photo of the sickly bear was plastered on billboards (see photo). Chinese people living abroad came to visit her and post updates on her condition. Others are examining pandas kept in other zoos in the United States and elsewhere. Russia has been praised for its top-notch treatment of two giant pandas at a Moscow zoo.
Chinese officials often stoke nationalist sentiment. In this case, they appealed for calm. U.S.-based diplomats visited the Memphis Zoo and “confirmed that the pandas are being cared for,” according to official reports. The China Association of Zoological Gardens, which arranged the panda loan, explained that Yaya, 22, is old and suffers from a skin disease.
Panda diplomacy is a boon for China. Zoos pay up to $1 a year to rent bears (additional payments if rare cubs are born). The animals underscore China’s fairly successful conservation efforts — the species was reclassified from “endangered” to “vulnerable” in 2016. And, critics say, pandas make an authoritarian state look endearing. About 20 countries currently host these bears.
Yaya is expected to return to China in April, when her loan agreement expires. But the incident has some in China questioning the approach to panda diplomacy. “It should be reduced,” said a visitor to the Beijing Zoo, who has been raising awareness with tote bags emblazoned with Yaya’s photo. Pandas come from China, but they don’t belong to China, she said.
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