Pandas make brief stop in Anchorage on way to Memphis

Posted: Tuesday, April 08, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Two giant pandas from China made a brief stop in Anchorage this week on their way to their new home in Memphis, Tenn.

The bears, named Le Le and Ya Ya, will live in the Memphis Zoo for the next 10 years. They were the only cargo on board a FedEx cargo plane, which was decorated with 30-foot-high panda decals on each side and nicknamed the Panda Express for the trans-Pacific flight.

The plane touched down at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport about 4:30 a.m. Monday. They were cleared by U.S. Customs and checked by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers before continuing on their trip.

The bears are the fourth pair of pandas on exhibit in the United States and the ninth pair outside of China.

Pandas are found only in the forests of western China, especially Sichuan province, where they are threatened by habitat destruction and competition for bamboo, their staple food.

Fewer than 1,000 giant pandas are estimated to be left in the wild, making it one of the most endangered species on the planet.

The Memphis Zoo has been working on getting a pair of pandas since 1999. They will be the featured attraction at the zoo's three-acre, $16 million China exhibit, which opened last July.

Ya Ya, a 2-year-old female from the Beijing Zoo, weighs 140 pounds. Le Le, a 4-year-old male from the Chongquing Zoo, weighs in at about 160 pounds.

When fully grown, male pandas can weigh from 220 to 330 pounds, while females typically weigh about 10 percent less.

Pandas are similar in size and shape to American black bears. However, unlike their North American cousins, pandas do not hibernate.

Pandas eat as much as 40 pounds of bamboo a day. In the zoo, Ya Ya and Le Le also will dine on sugar cane, rice gruel, carrots, apples, sweet potatoes and special high-fiber biscuits, Kristi Newland, the Memphis Zoo's curator of mammals, told the Anchorage Daily News.

FedEx, with headquarters in Memphis, provided the transportation for free. It was the second time the company has transported pandas to the United States from China.

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