(AFP) – Apr 30, 2008
TOKYO (AFP) — Ling Ling, the only giant panda owned by Japan, died of old age Wednesday at Tokyo's Ueno Zoo, where he had been one of the most popular attractions, officials said.
Visitors to the zoo pressed their hands together in prayer on learning the news and placed flowers on a makeshift altar.
Officials said the zoo would open Ling Ling's enclosure to mourners after decorating it with flowers and bamboo.
"Ling Ling was a representative of our zoo," said zookeeper Motoyasu Ida.
"He died peacefully. I think he lived a full life."
Ling Ling's death comes just days before Chinese President Hu Jintao is set to pay a landmark visit to Tokyo during which zoo officials are hoping for an agreement that will bring another panda to Japan.
"We strongly hope that his successor will come to our zoo from China and that some positive message would come during the Chinese president's visit," Ida said.
He said that at 22 years and seven months old, Ling Ling had been the equivalent age of a 70-year-old human.
The animal died a day after the zoo stopped public viewing as Ling Ling had suffered heart and kidney malfunction due to old age.
He was the only giant panda belonging to Japan. Another eight pandas are in Japan but all are leased by Chinese authorities.
Zookeepers tried but failed to encourage Ling Ling to mate with visiting pandas. Ueno's female panda, Tong Tong, died in 2000.
China has a long tradition of offering pandas reared in its southwestern province of Sichuan as gifts to foreign governments to improve ties.
Giant pandas have helped put themselves on the list of the world's most endangered species because of an apparent lack of interest in sex, which experts have sought to remedy with everything from Viagra to pornographic videos.
Ling Ling, born in Beijing Zoo in 1985, was given to Ueno Zoo in 1992 in exchange for a Japanese-born panda to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Hu is due to visit Japan from May 6-10 for what will be only the second trip by a Chinese head of state to Tokyo.
Relations between the countries have long been tense, in part due to the legacy of Japanese aggression before World War II.
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