Since Le Le and Ya Ya arrived in 2003, Memphis Zoo has played a role in a consorted worldwide effort to research and conserve giant pandas in the wild and captivity. Samples containing our Le Le’s genetics have been collected every few years during the breeding season and stored frozen in liquid nitrogen at -196° Celsius for over 10 years in some cases. Our Frozen Zoo bank currently holds Le Le samples from 2007 through 2019. Collection efforts from Le Le are a team process consisting of a collaboration between three Memphis Zoo departments—Animal Care, Veterinary, and Research staff and visiting scientists from China. After the samples are collected it takes the researcher an additional 3-5 hours to process, package, and freeze the samples in thin, sealed, plastic straws in liquid nitrogen. Samples collected and stored in this way have been used to successfully produce giant panda cubs around the world. Le Le’s genetic line is unrepresented in the captive population and therefore valuable. In early December, Memphis Zoo’s Research Team prepared to ship 96 samples to China. The samples are held for long-term storage in liquid nitrogen, which is too dangerous to use when transporting in a plane or truck. Therefore, to ship the samples to the Shanghai Zoo, we transferred them to a specialized container called a “dry shipper” that can maintain -196°C for only a short period but is safe for travel. The samples were then shipped to China by way of FedEx. The movement of the samples from the liquid nitrogen storage into the dry shipper is always a bit tenuous as the straws are so thin, they can start to thaw and pop seals within seconds of hitting room temperature air. Shipping is also worrisome because the container can only maintain the correct temperature for only 10-12 days but must travel for nearly 48 hours and go through multiple customs checks to be cleared to enter China. Once we transferred all the straws, attached the paperwork, locked the container down, and watched the FedEx van drive away, we could only bite our nails and refresh the tracking updates several times a day. 5 days later we finally heard the good news from our colleagues in China that the samples were safe and transferred to their long-term storage tanks. We are all hoping to hear within the next few years that Le Le is the father of several cubs produced in China. Le Le is 22 years old and is an amazing giant panda. We are all very excited to play a small role in sending his genetics across seas to continue to conserve and grow the giant panda population.
By Beth Roberts, Senior Conservation Biologist