Edinburgh zoo’s pandas are a big cuddly waste of money
Tian Tian and Yang Guang will doubtless charm zoo visitors but the cost of their stay would be better spent on conservation
A young panda with Xiang Xiang’s trainer and the ABC crew Photograph: Lijia Zhang
I have been a giant panda fan ever since I worked on a TV documentary on the endangered animal, and have therefore been following the latest panda fiasco with great interest.
Tian Tian ("sweetie") and her male companion Yang Guang ("sunshine") have just arrived at Edinburgh zoo, thousands of miles from the Wolong panda breeding centre in central China. They are reportedly "jet-lagged but very well". They’d better be. Soon visitors will flock to the first-class zoo to catch a glimpse of them. The breeding pair, born in 2003, will stay in the Scottish capital for 10 years for research and educational purposes. They will no doubt charm their audience; unlike their cousins in the wild, they are not shy and play in front of people.
Pandas’ cuddly looks and rarity have won them universal love, which has been well exploited by the Chinese government. In 1972, two pandas were presented to the United States after President Nixon’s historic visit; in 1974, another two were given to Britain in the wake of Edward Heath’s friendly visit. In 2005, as part of the talks with Lien Chan, China gifted two pandas to Taiwan.
‘Pandas’ cuddly looks have won them universal love.’ Photograph: Lijia Zhang
In today’s market economy, however, there are no more freebies. China usually offers 10-year loans with prices close to $1m as the yearly rental. The flocking of would-be panda-huggers will bring fat profits to the zoo and to China. But how will this money be spent?
So far, China’s enormous effort in preventing the species from extinction has been focused on its successful breeding programme, primarily through artificial insemination. By the end of 2010, there were some 312 pandas in captivity nationwide. So far, only one captive-born panda, named Xiang Xiang – "lucky" in Chinese – has ever been released. I am one of the few people who saw him in the wild before his unlucky ending.
In April 2006, Xiang Xiang was set free into a protected mountain region close to Wolong. He had received three years of assertiveness training to equip him with the skills to survive in the wild. Two months later, an ABC TV crew and I walked through dense bamboo forests and examined fresh panda droppings for clues to his whereabouts. Eventually we tracked down the panda, which was fitted with a radio-collar.
When Xiang Xiang saw his trainer, he threw himself at him for a bear hug. Mark Horstman, the ABC presenter, questioned Xiang Xiang’s chance of survival if he still craved human contact. Sure enough, in February 2007, Xiang Xiang was found dead, most likely as a result of a fight over territory or over a female panda. So sensitive was the news that the authorities kept quiet about it for more than three months.
Which brings us back to Edinburgh zoo, where a group of scientists will research how to introduce captive-born pandas into the wild. Professor Lu Zhi, a panda expert from Beijing University, has said the expensive exercise is as "pointless as taking off the pants in order to fart", and urged that the money be spent on conservation.
She says she doesn’t oppose commercial deals. "Tian Tian and Yang Guang are rather like migrant workers, leaving their village for the city. If the pandas knew how to calculate, they’d agree themselves, to earn lots of money to help to preserve themselves."
But she fears that the profit will go straight to the breeding programmes, which will produce more "un-authentic" pandas. The biggest difference between wild and bred pandas is the very low sex drive of the latter: in the wild, for much longer than human history, the animal has managed to reproduce, without any human assistance, sex videos or any mate-swapping tricks.
The long-term solution is to guarantee pandas’ natural habitat. While I don’t question our government’s determination to protect the species, it’s worth pointing out that railways and main roads are still being built too close to conservancy areas, or sometimes even through them. There has been little growth of the wild giant panda population, which is now estimated at 2,000. Without a vigorous conservation policy, the pandas will remain an exotic diplomatic tool or money-making tree.