Pandas Come With Strings Attached

At The Guardian, Henry Nicholls examines China’s cultivation of the giant panda as cultural capital, and the terms under which foreign zoos are allowed to take them in. Although Li Keqiang described the pair heading for Edinburgh as “a gift to the people of the UK from China”, these requirements are quite substantial:

Since 1998 pairs of have been leaving China on more ethically satisfying long-term loans, where the foreign zoo must commit to the highest standards of care, do all it can to breed from the animals, implement a programme of research, and fork out a hefty sum ($500,000 per pair per year) towards the conservation of wild .

But the way China conducts its panda business means these loans are as political as ever. In the case of Edinburgh, for example, a freedom of information request by the Captive Animals’ Protection Society revealed a level of lobbying unthinkable for any other species, with Alex Salmond, Gordon Brown, Boris Johnson and the royal family (among others) attempting to clinch the deal. With all this politicking – sealed this week with the signatures of the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, and the Chinese vice-premier, Li Keqiang – it’s clear there is more to this than simply the conservation of the panda.

It seems appropriate to ask what possible conservation benefit there can be in bringing pandas to . In the surprisingly readable academic tome Giant Pandas: Biology, Veterinary Medicine and Management, there is a long list of reasons why we might want pandas in captivity, including their ability to inspire, educate, act as an insurance policy against extinction, and raise conservation cash. There may be merit in these, but there is still room for improvement – notably in the way the $500,000 is spent. The Chinese are committed to using the money to benefit wild pandas, but most of it goes towards strengthening the captive infrastructure on the pretext that this, in turn, is of benefit to free-range pandas. It is a bit, but not much.

Could Edinburgh zoo achieve more for conservation were it to invest its time, energy and cash in a suite of other endangered species? In theory, yes; but in practice, I don’t think so. For the $500,000 would not exist were it not for the pandas, consummate fundraisers capable of turning turnstiles at a terrific rate, shifting vast quantities of merchandise and attracting new money for conservation from sponsors keen to be seen in a benevolent light.

Indeed, the $500,000 must be seen in light of the financial boost the pandas can provide to their hosts. According to some forecasts, the fee may amount to as little as $1 for every additional visitor lured by the bears. From the Edinburgh Evening News:

The arrival of the pandas will provide a much-needed boost for Edinburgh Zoo, which has been hit hard by falling visitor numbers, and is understood to have made plans to axe a quarter of its 200 full-time staff. Zoo bosses had hoped to see visitors numbers increase to 632,000 in 2010, but it is thought the year’s final total was around 570,000. However, insiders say the introduction of the pandas could see the number of visitors swell to around one million, overtaking Edinburgh Castle as Scotland’s most- visited attraction ….

The introduction of pandas to Adelaide Zoo saw visitor numbers soar by 70 per cent, while in Taipei zoo bosses recorded increases of half a million visitors, from 3.2m to 3.7m in 2009.

Nicholls also proposes the term “pandapathetic” to describe those whose view of the animals is characterised by balance and sobriety, rather than cooing or contempt.