Why panda diplomacy is cute but ethically questionable
Some unlikely Chinese ambassadors arrived in Britain last month. They gobble more than Dh400,000 a year in food alone but do nothing more than sit around napping. These new representatives are not human, however - they are two giant pandas called Tian Tian and Yang Guan, lent (at a price) to Edinburgh Zoo for 10 years.
The pair are just the most recent example of China's reinforcing its international relationships with loans of this engaging species to foreign zoos.
Although the bears are supposed to stay with their foreign hosts for a decade, there's no guarantee they will do so if they fail to breed. The Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, whose expiring 10-year deal on Tian Tian (same name, different panda) and Mei Xiang has just been extended to 2015, said last week that it wanted to swap Mei Xiang for another female with a better chance of producing cubs.
So far, no giant panda has made it to the UAE, but with relations with China getting ever closer, it may only be a matter of time before a couple of the animals find their own specially cooled enclosure at Al Ain Zoo.
But while China's policy of lending pandas to friendly nations - dubbed "panda diplomacy" - is popular with zoo-goers, many wildlife conservation organisations express concern at the practice, suggesting both that it damages the bears' welfare and that it distracts from neglect elsewhere. So are these cuddly-looking ambassadors a bad thing, or are objections simply a case of looking a gift bear in the mouth?
The policy may be controversial, but it's hardly new, with a tradition of panda gifts dating back to China's early-mediaeval Tang dynasty. It was in 685 that the otherwise terrifying empress Wu Zetian sent a pair of bears to soften up her Japanese counterpart. Over the past 100 years, however, Beijing's dispatch of ursine ambassadors has risen exponentially, the most famous being Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, two pandas given to the US by China to commemorate the two countries' easing relations following President Richard Nixon's visit in 1972.
So phenomenally popular were those bears that more than one million visitors saw them in the Washington zoo in their first year in residence.
Since 1984, Chinese panda diplomacy has become a more short-term game - instead of giving the bears away, the Chinese now lend them (like the Edinburgh and Washington pairs) for a decade. While this means the bears clock up a considerable number of air miles over their lifetimes (typically 20 years but as much as 30 in captivity), it still gives their host zoos a massive publicity boost, and offers them the hope of breeding their own cubs to keep.
The political uses of globe-trotting pandas remain as strong as ever, with loans such as the pandas China sent to Taiwan in 2008 a clear attempt to sweeten relations with the island. So controversial was the idea of Taiwan accepting the bears from a state it perceives as aggressive that the Beijing government's Taiwanese opponents have urged their supporters not to visit the bears, whose names (Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan) placed together provocatively form the Mandarin word tuanyuan or "reunion", a reference to the Chinese desire for an end to Taiwanese independence.
Such political gesturing does no one any great harm, but some conservationists fear China's desire to foster good international relations pushes the pandas' welfare into second place. Libby Anderson, of the animal-protection charity OneKind, says: "No matter how high the quality of their new enclosure, no matter how excellent the viewing and monitoring facilities, the pandas inside will still be denied the ability to roam free, to forage and feed as they like, to avoid or associate with companions, and to follow their instincts in selecting a mate."
Other groups have pointed to China's poor record in protecting other species. While pandas have become a cherished symbol of national identity, the country's wildlife is often in a desperate state, threatened by development and poaching, and suffering from a lack of consistent government protection.
The British campaign group Tiger Time has pointed out that China's recent panda loans should not blind the public to China's poor record in protecting equally threatened tigers.
Peter Carroll, Tiger Time's campaign manager, says: "Giving away pandas gives China huge political kudos, but while they are good at symbolic stuff, they are at the same time failing to take basic steps to protect other species. There are now only 3,200 wild tigers left - you could fit every one of them on a soccer pitch. China allows a licensed trade in tiger skins and allows tigers to be farmed on an industrial scale. To let this go on while gaining positive publicity from pandas seems hypocritical."
Such concerns can't be dismissed, but they do point to one potentially positive outcome of panda diplomacy: the extra scrutiny of China's wildlife protection generated by the pandas might well push the Beijing government towards greater efforts in conservation.
Envoys from the wild side
The panda is not the only creature to have been pressed into diplomatic service. Elephants have long been popular gifts between statesmen - the affection the 16th-century Pope Leo X had for his elephant Hanno (a gift from Portugal) did not stop the poor creature dying at the age of six.
In Renaissance Florence, Lorenzo "il Magnifico" de' Medici would have appeared even more magnificent with the arrival of a giraffe sent to him by the Egyptian sultan.
Hernan Cortes, the conqueror of Mexico, tried to cover up the shortcomings of his blundering in America by sending countless unlucky ocelots, monkeys, parakeets and jaguars across the Atlantic as exciting gifts to the Spanish Court.
While animal welfare is a greater priority nowadays - the pandas currently on loan from the Chinese to Australia's Adelaide Zoo are even cooled by their own specially refrigerated rocks - the animal-giving habit is still strong, with the Chinese themselves sometimes on the receiving end. In 2009, the Seychelles sent a species even rarer than the giant panda - a pair of Aldabra giant tortoises - to live permanently in Shanghai Zoo.
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Updated: January 9, 2012 04:00 AM