An animal welfare NGO has urged China not to use animals such as pandas as political gifts. It comes after a 24-year-old male giant panda named Le Le died at Memphis Zoo in the US.

panda diplomacy
Liu Xianghua, President of the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens speaks at a ceremony, 07 April 2003 in Beijing, marking the departure of two pandas for a 10-year stay at the Memphis Zoo. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP.

Zoo officials told reporters that the cause of death was unknown but “unexpected,” according to CNN. Experts from China will reportedly conduct a post-mortem.

Jason Baker, the Asia vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said pandas were not objects to be gifted for diplomatic purposes. “They are intelligent and social animals that form close bonds with their families and friends,” Baker said.

“It is heart-wrenching to think of Le Le and Ya Ya, who were separated from their families in 1999 and brought to the United States to live a life of captivity. For over 23 years, they suffered in a confined space that lacked natural dietary and social enrichment. Sadly, Le Le died in a state of physical and psychological distress.”

In a Tuesday press statement, he added that animals should be kept in the wild or sent to natural sanctuaries: “It’s time for governments to stop using pandas, elephants and other animals as political gifts. PETA urges that animals be kept in the wild or be sent to natural sanctuaries where they can thrive in their natural habitat and receive the care they deserve.”

Giant Panda An An
A giant Panda at Hong Kong’s Ocean Park. File Photo: Ocean Park

Le Le, along with female panda Ya Ya, was set to be returned to China in April, as a loan agreement with the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens reached it expiry.

In the wild, giant pandas can live between 14 to 20 years, whilst those in captivity can reach 30, according to the Word Wide Fund for Nature.

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Tom is the editor-in-chief and founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications and New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Al-Jazeera and others.