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Goodbye, Jia Jia: World's Oldest Captive Panda Dies at Age 38

Throughout her long life, Jia Jia helped the dwindling number of pandas bounce back

Jia Jia (Ocean Park)

Jia Jia the panda passed away Sunday at age 38—the oldest recorded captive giant panda in history—at Ocean Park, a theme park in Hong Kong.

In 1978, Jia Jia the panda was born somewhere in the rapidly disappearing wild bamboo forests of Qingchuan in Sichuan province. Two years later, as one of less than 2,500 pandas left on earth, she was brought to Wolong Panda Reserve, where she became part of a panda breeding program. She arrived at Ocean park in 1999, where she has lived out the remainder of her days.

The average lifespan for a captive giant panda is about 25 years compared to roughly 20 years in the wild, according to Danny Mok at the South China Morning Post. But Jia Jia, whose name means “Good,” blew that statistic out of the water, living to the human equivalent of 114 years old. Though she suffered from high blood pressure, arthritis and cataracts in both of her eyes, Jia Jia’s quality of life was still quite good. Mok reports that she was described as quiet, maternal and affable.

But over the last two weeks, Jia Jia’s health began deteriorating quickly, according to a press release from Ocean Park. Her food consumption dropped from about 22 pounds of food per day to roughly 6.5 pounds. And in her last few days, she showed little interest in food or water, spending most of her time lying down. Veterinarians from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department and Ocean Park decided that instead of letting Jia Jia suffer a prolonged illness, they would put her down. Dr. Paolo Martelli, Director for Veterinary Service at Ocean Park euthanized the panda at 6 P.M. in the comfort of her den.

Ocean Park’s chairman, Leo Kung Lin-cheng, said in the press release “Jia Jia was a member of our family who had spent 17 wonderful years with Hong Kong people, and she will be deeply missed. We also want to thank Jia Jia for all of the wonderful things she brought the people of Hong Kong and our visitors from around the world, as she was a true ambassador of conservation and educational messaging.”

Jia Jia’s legacy will live on. While residing at the giant panda breeding center, she gave birth to six children who have had 13 grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Mok reports Jia Jia and a male panda named An An were gifted to Ocean Park by China’s Central government to belatedly celebrate Hong Kong’s reunification with China. An An, who is currently the second oldest male panda in captivity at age 30, and two 11-year-old pandas, Ying Ying and Le Le still reside at Ocean Park.

During Jia Jia’s lifetime panda conservation saw many setbacks and a few bright spots. Li Jing at the South China Morning Post reports that during the 1980s, wild panda numbers dropped below 1,000, decimated by forest destruction and poaching and compounded by the species’ low birth rate. By 2014, however, after decades of reforestation and breeding, the population reached 1,864 wild pandas with another 422 in captivity.

The species is doing so well that in September the IUCN, the organization that lists animals as endangered, downgraded the giant panda from endangered to vulnerable, reports Emanuella Grinberg at CNN. While the conservation community cheered the achievement, the Chinese government was not happy. Jing reports that after the announcement the State Forestry Administration released a statement saying the panda still faced significant threats and it was too early to change its endangered status.

Though there is much more to be done to protect these beautiful beasts, Jia Jia's long life serves as a reminder that with great care we can help their kind bounce back.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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