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One of the world's oldest pandas dies in China at 34

By Steven Jiang, CNN
A giant panda plays at the Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in Chengdu, China in August 2010.
A giant panda plays at the Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in Chengdu, China in August 2010.
  • Ming Ming dies on May 7 in southern China
  • She dies of kidney failure after living in captivity since 1979
  • At least two pandas had lived longer than Ming Ming

Beijing (CNN) -- She ate her favorite food all day long and rarely exercised. She had a few brief failed relationships but mostly stayed single and never gave birth.

Defying conventional wisdom on a healthy lifestyle, she somehow found the secret to longevity.

When she died of kidney failure on May 7 in southern China, some local media called Ming Ming, 34, the world's oldest giant panda, generating global headlines.

Wild pandas live 15 years on average, while those in captivity can live much longer thanks to improved nutrition and medical care, according to WWF, the nature conservation organization whose logo famously features a giant panda.

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At least two pandas had lived longer than Ming Ming, state media has reported. Tao Tao died in 2008 at the age of 36 and Chang Chang passed away in 2002 at the age of 35.

"The longevity of those pandas doesn't have too much to do with our conservation effort," said Professor Fan Zhiyong, head of the species program at WWF's Beijing office.

"In captivity pandas don't have to worry about food sources, infectious diseases and competition from other species -- all of which remain challenges to their survival in the wild."

While both Tao Tao and Chang Chang spent most of their lives in a zoo in eastern China, Ming Ming's life journey spanned half the globe. Her longevity had surpassed most people's expectations.

She was rescued in 1979 in the mountains of Sichuan province, a rare sanctuary for one of the world's most endangered species.

Some 300 pandas live in captivity in China, mostly in breeding programs aimed at boosting the low population caused by disappearing natural habitats and low fertility rate. Fewer than a dozen zoos outside China have pandas.

"Ming Ming had always been weak ever since she was rescued," said Huang Zhi, one of her caretakers at China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong, also in Sichuan, where she grew up.

"She was quite timid and not very close to people," he added.

Despite the personality, Ming Ming played the panda ambassador when the Chinese government dispatched her to the London Zoo in 1991. Fighting instead of mating with a male panda from Berlin, Ming Ming failed her most important duty and returned home three years later.

She moved one last time in 1998 to a safari park in the southern Guangdong province, where old age eventually caused multiple health problems.

Huang, Ming Ming's longtime caretaker, last visited her in April.

"Her eyesight was deteriorating -- and she moved very slowly and ate very little," he recalled. "I felt she was very old."