Famous, fluffy, and adorable, panda bears are one of the most recognized animals. Due to hunting and habitat loss, panda numbers declined into the late 20th century, but conservation efforts have pulled the population back up to approximately 2,000 living in the wild and near 250 in captivity. Giant pandas are native to China, and what’s more, the Chinese government owns all of them, whether they live there or not.
Over spring break, I went to the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. and the last animal my friends and I got to see was a giant panda. This panda could have been Mei Xiang or Tian Tian, a female and male respectively, both born in a Chinese research center but on loan to the United States. These pandas belong to the Chinese government who leased them to the National Zoo in a ten-year, $10 million agreement. In other words, one million dollars per year per panda. This may sound bad. Did the Chinese just cash out by renting two members of an endangered species to another country? Say it isn’t so.
It isn’t so. By law, the Chinese government must funnel half of the lease money to panda conservation and research. Furthermore, the envoy of pandas to other countries is no new concept. China’s use of pandas as diplomatic gifts* to other countries is a tradition found as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618-907A.D.). Hence the term “panda diplomacy”. It was revived in the 1950s and continues through today, but not always with the price tag attached. Before Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, two pandas were gifted to the United States after former President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, and they were donated to the National Zoo. The black-and-white bears were incredibly popular and viewed as more than balls of fur; these bears were political symbols of peaceful diplomatic relations between giver and receiver. In 1984, China changed its policy on panda diplomacy. There would be no giving of pandas. Rather, the Chinese government would loan a panda to another country on a ten- year lease with fees up to $1,000,000 a year, under the provision that any cub born during the loan period is the property of China. This explains why the son of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, born in 2005, was sent “back” to China in early 2010.
Attitudes surrounding panda diplomacy are not always positive. In 2005, after a Taiwanese party leader visited China, two pandas were offered as a gift to the people of Taiwan. Although a popular idea with the Taiwanese public, one of the political parties disapproved because of the ongoing conflict about Taiwan being a part of China. Back to political symbols, the pandas would represent China trying to acquire Taiwan. Also, the trade agreement was disputed as a domestic transfer (i.e. China was sending the pandas to another part of China) or a country-to-country transfer. A change in Taiwanese leadership in 2008 led to the pandas being accepted into Taiwan.
Diplomatic gifts. Political symbols. Revenue makers. Conservation funders. Research subjects. Wrapped into a furry package, these pandas play a lot of roles, but how are they impacted? What does it mean for the giant panda to be made into something leased and transferred and legally disputed? Panda diplomacy is certainly a political phenomenon, but what does it mean for conservation? The two pandas gifted to the U.S. in 1972 and donated to the National Zoo were taken from the wild, and forceful captures like this should not occur. Zoos should house animals for rehabilitation or conservation purposes. Examples are animals who cannot live in their natural habitat, whether that be because they are injured, refugees from a damaged area, or born into captivity without the means to survive in the wild.** The Chinese government should never have captured them, but there is fault in the United States and the National Zoo graciously accepting them. However, nowadays, pandas involved in acts of panda diplomacy are almost all born into captivity, whether in a zoo or conservation center or research facility. As long as the receiving party has the facilities, money, and utilities to properly and humanely care for the pandas, the pandas are typically taking a ten-year vacation from one home in captivity for another. It is also important to remember that pandas are rare, and therefore valuable. Sticking a price tag on animals like these may seem demoralizing, but wouldn’t it be equally bad if these endangered animals were given out for free? Furthermore, much of the revenue cycles back into efforts to help giant pandas. As aforementioned, the Chinese government must send at least half of the money from leasing profits to research and conservation groups. By China leasing pandas to other countries, and other countries paying to receive them, the panda conservation movement is given fuel to research and restore this species in the wild. Panda diplomacy has its flaws and dark moments, but overall, who is losing out? When I was gawking at that adorable bear at the National Zoo, it certainly wasn’t me.
* Diplomatic gifts are generally defined as gifts exchanged with or following a visit by a diplomat, leader, or politician to a foreign country.
** Further information: The National Geographic documentary Pandas: The Journey Home includes the survival training and subsequent return of a captive-born panda into the wild.