‘Toxic’ panda fans in China call for keeping the bears at home

A flurry of panda deals

The online concern over the well-being of pandas at U.S. zoos can be traced to the sudden death of Le Le, a male panda that had been at the Memphis Zoo since 2003.

Last February, Le Le died of heart disease at age 24 — the equivalent of his 60s in human years — drawing an outcry from Chinese internet users who questioned the cause of death and worried about the health of his partner, Ya Ya.

Officials in both China and the U.S. denied claims that Ya Ya was suffering from malnutrition and excessive confinement, and said her hair appeared patchy because of a chronic skin and fur condition. Many of her fans were not convinced and demanded her return to China, which had already been scheduled for last year as the zoo’s 20-year loan agreement for the pandas reached its end.

In November, the National Zoo returned its three pandas to China as its loan agreement also expired, leaving Zoo Atlanta with the only four pandas in the U.S. and raising fears that a program that had symbolized U.S.-China amity since 1972 might be curtailed.

Those fears were eased in November when Chinese President Xi Jinping hinted during a visit to California that more pandas were on the way.

Since then, as the U.S. and China try to improve relations, Beijing has announced panda agreements with the National Zoo, San Francisco Zoo and San Diego Zoo, which hasn’t had pandas since 2019.

The pair going to the San Diego Zoo, 4-year-old male Yun Chuan and 3-year-old female Xin Bao, are the first new pandas to arrive in the U.S. in decades.

China has also announced plans to send pandas to zoos in Spain, Austria and Australia.

President Joe Biden with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Woodside, Calif., in November.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Extreme fandom

As in the U.S. and other countries that host the bears, pandas are wildly popular in China, where visitors crowd exhibits at zoos and panda videos rack up views online.

Some fans go further, joining virtual communities dedicated to individual pandas. For instance, He Hua, a 3-year-old panda born at the Chengdu Panda Base in Sichuan province, has amassed a Weibo community of more than 870,000 followers.

These enthusiasts “sign in” to the community daily, sharing photos and videos of the panda captured through a 24-hour live-streaming channel called “iPanda” that is run by state broadcaster CCTV.

Some larger communities organize offline events, mobilizing followers to participate in fundraising drives and online voting campaigns. The idea is to generate hype around individual pandas, just as fans of boy bands and girl groups promote some members over others.

Sometimes this extends to disparaging other pandas.

In January, extreme panda fans got into a dispute over a video that showed He Hua falling repeatedly to the ground while playing on a wooden structure with her sister, He Ye.

He Hua’s fans said He Ye was “bullying” the other bear and demanded the panda base make improvements to its facilities.

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