After spending the past 20 years on loan to the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee, Ya Ya, a female giant panda, launched her venture back to China on Wednesday.

Once a symbol of diplomatic relations between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), 22-year-old Ya Ya’s fate has recently become ensnared in the ongoing tensions dividing the two world powerhouses. After photos and videos circulated online showing Ya Ya’s patchy fur and thin appearance, animal-rights groups started petitioning for the panda’s return, saying she was being mistreated at the Memphis Zoo.

In February, animal advocates also condemned the zoo’s care of giant pandas after Ya Ya’s male playmate, Le Le, died at age 24 from heart disease. Memphis Zoo officials alongside the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens (CAZG) previously said in a joint statement that the giant pandas are receiving “excellent care,” but campaigns about rescuing the pandas escalated on Chinese social media, with anti-American sentiments.

Ya Ya Panda Heads Home to Beijing
A giant panda feeds on bamboo tree leaves at the Memphis Zoo in Memphis, Tennessee, on October 2, 2016. Ya Ya, a female giant panda that has been living at the zoo on lease for 20 years, on Wednesday began her journey back to China.
Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

As The New York Times reports, China has participated in its “panda diplomacy” since 1972, when Chinese leader Mao Zedong promised President Richard Nixon two pandas in exchange for two musk oxen. In 1984, China finalized arrangement for its pandas to be sent to overseas zoos on 10-year leases, which usually cost from $500,000 to $1 million annually.

During a press conference on April 11, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that the “cooperation” between the Memphis Zoo and CAZG ended on April 7, and preparations for Ya Ya’s return to the Beijing Zoo were in motion.

According to a post from the Memphis Zoo, Ya Ya started her “journey” to China on Wednesday, where the senior panda will “live out her golden years.”

“After 20 years, Ya Ya has become like family, and she will be sorely missed by the Memphis Zoo staff and the local community,” read the statement. “We wish her the best of luck in her new home.”

According to zoo officials, Ya Ya suffers from a “chronic skin and fur condition,” causing her recent mangy appearance. The disease, however, is not connected to the panda’s nutrition levels, and Chinese officials have agreed that Ya Ya’s weight is stable and healthy.

Chinese social media users, however, have turned Ya Ya into a symbol of anti-American rage, and allegations that the Memphis Zoo was mistreating their giant pandas have become widely accepted in China.

In a report from CNN on Wednesday, several people at the Beijing Zoo told international correspondent Selina Wang that they were glad Ya Ya was being brought home, adding that they heard the U.S. was “treating the panda poorly.” Others who spoke to Wang also mentioned the pandas on loan at the Moscow Zoo, saying that Russia takes good care of their pandas.

“Why would we want to send them to unfriendly countries?” one man said while speaking with Wang. “(Pandas in Russia) are very happy. Why? Russians and Chinese are friends. At least Russia is not sanctioning China.”

Russia received giant pandas Ding Ding and Ru Yi in 2019, and, according to a March report from Chinese-state owned media Global Times, the Moscow Zoo “stood out” among other zoological gardens for treating their pandas particularly well. Videos of Ding Ding and Ru Yi have also circulated on Chinese social media platforms showing the pandas happy, active and fluffy.

Relations between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin have been bolstered since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war, as China has refused to condemn Russia’s full-scale invasion of its eastern neighbor. In a peace proposal released in February, Xi insisted on reaching an end to the 14-month-long war with a plan that upholds each country’s sovereignty, and called for the end of all Western sanctions against Russia.

Last month, Xi and Putin also reaffirmed their “no-limits” partnership during a two-day meeting in Moscow.

While politics are seldom cited as a reason for China to return its pandas home, Matthew Fraser, associate professor at the American University of Paris, previously told The New York Times that Beijing often uses its pandas as a way to “leverage” its own interests with its foreign trading partners.

“Almost always when China gives a panda to a zoo in another country, it is usually facilitating some kind of good will and very frequently a trade deal,” Fraser told the outlet. “When China takes back a panda, it’s usually because the regime is very displeased for some reason.”

Newsweek has reached out to the U.S. Department of State via email for comment.