A US zoo is returning two giant pandas that had been on loan from China, a move welcomed on the mainland following recent allegations of mistreatment by animal rights activists. The Memphis Zoo announced on December 21 that pandas Ya Ya and Le Le would be sent back to China early next year after a 20-year loan agreement between the zoo and the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens ended. Earlier this year, animal rights groups claimed that the zoo was mistreating the pandas. In February, the group In Defense of Animals (IDA) released a video online showing the animals pacing around their enclosure and accused the zoo of subjecting them to “physical, mental, and emotional deprivation”. The Chinese public, which had been shocked by the mistreatment accusations, welcomed news of the pandas’ return to China. “Are those two pandas very underweight? God bless. Finally, they can leave that zoo,” commented one person on Weibo. “They must have suffered a lot. I hope they will enjoy the rest of their lives after coming home,” another said. Many expressed concern at the delay till next year for the pandas’ homecoming: “Can they send them back as soon as possible?” Asked one person. Another asked: “Could they send them back before Lunar New Year?” The mistreatment claims saw millions of people in China join calls worldwide for the zoo to provide better living conditions for Ya Ya and Le Le. Others, such as American singer Billie Eilish, went further and called for the immediate removal of the pandas from Memphis Zoo. Memphis Zoo has denied the return of the pandas is related to the accusations, which it has rejected. A spokesperson for the zoo told Reuters the return was part of the agreement with China that requires foreign zoos to allow the loaned pandas to spend their final days on Chinese soil. The spokesperson added that Ya Ya and Le Le have already exceeded the average giant panda life expectancy in the wild by almost 10 years. Ya Ya and Le Le have lived at the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee since 2003, with Ya Ya now 24 years old and Le Le 22 years old. A report by the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute said: “Scientists are not sure how long giant pandas live in the wild, but they are sure it is shorter than lifespans in zoos. They estimate that lifespan is about 15 to 20 years for wild pandas and about 30 years for those in human care.” Chinese scientists have reported zoo pandas as old as 35. The Global Times revealed in February that China was working on giant panda research and conservation with 18 countries that are keeping pandas, including the United States, Germany, Qatar, Singapore and Japan.