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Pandas: pawns in a game of international diplomacy


As he often does, Shintaro Ishihara recently offered his views on a subject that didn’t concern him and kicked up a controversy. During a press conference, the Tokyo governor sardonically questioned the “divinity” of pandas and wondered out loud, “Do we really need them?” — thus adding fuel to the argument about whether or not Ueno Zoo, whose sole panda, Ling Ling, died on April 30, should get another one.

Actually, the matter does concern Ishihara, because while the so-called panda diplomacy was carried out between Japan and China, Ueno Zoo is run by Tokyo, and it is Ueno Zoo that will pay for the acquisition, which would amount to more than ¥100 million a year. Consequently, Ishihara’s comment reflects the tone of those people who called the zoo saying they don’t think a new panda is needed, either.

It’s been mentioned that many of these calls, as well as Ishihara’s comment, were prompted more by anti-China feelings than by fiscal concerns. Ishihara is a notorious China-basher and a good portion of the callers mentioned Tibetan independence during their panda protests. Japan is simply aiding the Chinese government in its crackdown in Tibet if it pays for a new panda, some of these callers said.

As evidenced by the sort of people you saw on the news getting into scuffles with Chinese students several weeks ago during the Olympic torch relay in Nagano, it’s obvious that some of these anti-panda forces are only marginally interested in Tibetan independence and wouldn’t know the Dalai Lama from Yul Brynner.

Many are hardcore Japanese nationalists who will take advantage of any opportunity to mix it up with China apologists, but whatever their reasons for protesting the panda acquisition, it’s obvious that it benefits the Chinese more than it does the Japanese.

During Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent historic visit to Japan, a number of TV pundits said that Ling Ling couldn’t have died at a better time for him — one weekly magazine even speculated that the Chinese might have assassinated the animal. Desperate to improve relations with Japan after a decade of chilly feelings over sideshows like Yasukuni, Hu immediately offered to lend Ueno Zoo a pair of pandas to replace Ling Ling, and with a single gesture engendered immeasurable goodwill among the Japanese people.

The controversy over what have been called “panda rental fees” is a bit more problematic. The program ostensibly represents a conscientious effort to safeguard an endangered species, but some consider it a racket. Until 1981, China gave away pandas as gifts. After the country signed the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species it implemented a policy wherein zoos could lease pandas, with the proceeds going to panda conservation and repopulation efforts in China. Fees would be determined by the relative wealth of the country where the zoos are located. Zoos in Japan and the U.S. pay about a million dollars a year for a panda, while it’s believed that Thailand pays about a quarter of that amount.

The achievements of the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Center, one of at least two panda-conservation facilities funded by the rental program, depends on which news article you read. Some conservationists believe that the high birthrate at the facility — 36 in 2006 alone — is reason enough to support it. However, other conservationists don’t really see enough effort being made to return pandas to the wild, and some think the facility is nothing more than a PR tool. China can point to its pandas and the center as proof that it cares about wildlife and nature conservation in general. After all, the panda is the symbol of the World Wildlife Federation.

But are pandas the symbol of the WWF because they’re endangered or because they’re cute and cute is what draws people’s attention? There are an estimated 1,500 pandas in the world, which doesn’t sound like many but pandas are notoriously bad at reproducing — females are in heat only two days a year — and they live on bamboo leaves and nothing but bamboo leaves. The species, whose existence is precarious by definition, doesn’t seem so much endangered as simply rare, and there’s a difference. The combination of universally recognized adorability and natural scarcity is what gives the animal its aura. Pandas may not be gods, as Ishihara pointed out, but in media terms they are certainly celebrities.

That’s why the Washington Post refers to them as “the rock stars of the captive animal world.” In the 1970s and ’80s, they were guaranteed to attract crowds, but the four American zoos that currently keep pandas are seriously reconsidering the high fees they are paying to China since zoo visitors seem less interested in the animals than they used to be.

People in Japan also wonder why Ueno Zoo really needs a new panda or two, especially when there are plenty of pandas in other Japanese zoos. As a letter writer to the Asahi Shimbun pointed out, the younger you are the greater your attraction to pandas, and elementary school children are not charged admission to Ueno Zoo, thus making pandas less cost-efficient in terms of generating revenue. Of course, public zoos aren’t supposed to make money, but one can’t help but think that animals are better cared for in a zoo that’s financially well off. Wakayama’s Adventure World, a private zoo that has successfully bred pandas — it currently keeps six — charges preteens ¥2,300 to get in.

Nevertheless, last week Ueno Zoo announced it was fixing up Ling Ling’s old enclosure in anticipation of its new residents, thus indicating it doesn’t have a choice in the matter. The prerogatives of bilateral diplomacy supersede the wants and needs of a place like Ueno Zoo. For that matter, they supersede the wants and needs of pandas, too.