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Beyond 'panda diplomacy'

Publication Date : 05-12-2013


The world loves pandas. The enigmatic, retiring beasts have become a global symbol of international friendship since China first began sending them as gifts to foreign countries in the 1950s.

Until now, that is.

In September, the decision by Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo to locate a pair of giant pandas at Pairi Daiza zoo in the French-speaking region of Wallonia sparked widespread anger among the country's Flemish-speaking population.

Di Rupo, a former mayor of the francophone city of Mons, was accused of a black-and-white case of "diplomatic favouritism".

The Belgian media dubbed the spat "Pandagate", and in one fell swoop the animals - a male, Xinhui, and a female, Haohao - had, albeit unwittingly, exacerbated Belgium's deep-rooted linguistic divide and caused a major furore, a far cry from the ideals of one of China's major soft-power triumphs of recent decades, "panda diplomacy".

Mike Bastin, a visiting professor at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing who specialises in brand management at Southampton Solent Business School in the UK, said panda diplomacy is both a symbol of genuine friendship and an excellent form of brand association, which may help the West better understand China and the Chinese people.

"The West still has much to learn about Chinese culture and the Chinese people. Pandas will always be associated with China, and their brand image fits well with the real nature of Chinese people, i.e. kind, caring and fun-loving," he said.

"Going forward, at a time when many of China's leading companies are expanding globally but perhaps have not yet developed strong brands overseas, positive brand associations such as the panda are extremely important."

A rental period of 15 years was confirmed at a Sept 13 meeting between Premier Li Keqiang and Belgium's Di Rupo. The time span raised eyebrows because China had never before signed a lease longer than 10 years. The pandas will likely arrive in Belgium in the first quarter of next year.

It seems like every country wants a panda, despite the huge expense involved - rental fees and food come in at a cool US$1 million per panda per annum - and the machinations required to guarantee that a request becomes a reality.

Oral commitments simply won't guarantee a successful panda rental, according to a researcher at the State Forestry Administration of China who would only give his name as Wang.

"Strategic relationships are probably the primary criteria by which a country's qualifications are judged. For example, Belgium is currently China's sixth-largest trading partner in the European Union, with a bilateral trade volume of US$26.3 billion in 2012. That's a lot of leverage," he said.

"In addition to strategic partnership concerns, prospective recipients must prove that they are capable of providing good-quality facilities in which the pandas can live and breed. And they also have to prove that they are determined to protect this endangered species."

Engineers and workers are busy constructing a home for the pandas in Belgium. Eric Domb, president of Pairi Daiza, said the enclosure will cost 8 million euros (US$10.8 million) and is expected to be finished by December.

Dwindling population

However, the primary purpose of the pandas' visit will not be to draw large crowds, although that's certainly a healthy motive, but as part of ongoing international efforts to conserve and protect the rapidly dwindling population.

In the 1950s, China sent pandas as gifts to friendly countries with no strings attached. The most successful donation being that of two pandas to the US in 1972, a move announced during President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China which marked the beginning of normalised Sino-US relations.

According to China's third national giant panda population survey, by October 2011 there were fewer than 1,600 pandas living in the wild and 333 in captivity. Giant pandas usually have a life span of 18 to 20 years in the wild, and more than 30 years in captivity. Their main habitats are the mountainous regions in the provinces of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu.

In 1982, in acknowledgement of the decline in panda numbers, the Chinese government stopped giving them as gifts. Instead the animals were "loaned", usually via renewable 10-year rental terms. China also banned any form of overseas panda tours for private profit.

The nature of panda exchanges has changed into an exercise focused on protecting the species through collaborative research, and China is seeking multiple ways to set up solutions for further cooperation.

The government is hoping that cooperation between Chinese and foreign scientists can develop new ways of saving the panda and the entire US$1 million annual rental fee goes toward protection and research.

"If a foreign zoo wants to rent a panda, it must first draw up a feasible research programme that will really help panda conservation in China," said Wang.

Liu Yu, a researcher at Wolong National Natural Reserve, one of China's three research and conservation centers for giant pandas, said cooperation has proved effective.

"Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are the second pair of giant pandas at the US National Zoo in Washington. Under a cooperative research and breeding agreement, we have been working with US scientists to improve semen cryopreservation technology with the aim of raising the fertility rate of giant pandas," said Liu.

He explained the rental procedure: First, a foreign zoo has to contact the China Wildlife Conservation Association and provide evidence and the necessary certificates to guarantee a safe and healthy stay. The association will then relay its assessment of the bid to a higher body, the Forestry Administration of China.

Next, a high-level Chinese politician will discuss the matter with a foreign counterpart. If a deal is struck, the association will select the pandas from three major habitat areas, including Wolong Natural Reserve.

"There is a line we never cross when choosing pandas; core species - those that have lived in the wild - won't be chosen, because we have to monitor their life patterns and they are extremely valuable to our own research and preservation," said Liu.

"We only send 'good-looking' pandas to foreign zoos. The judges have to decide whether the panda's 'shoulder strap' is robust and whether the dark, circular markings around the eyes are large enough. Also, if we loan a pair of pandas, we have to ensure they aren't closely related."

Once a lease agreement has been signed, the pandas are transferred to the destination with the utmost care, usually by FedEx, a courier service with wide experience of transporting the animals.

"When we receive a request to transport pandas, we provide a unique, customised solution to show our capability in shipping the cargo," said Tony Zhou, corporate communications manager at FedEx Express.

The most recent case of international panda transport took place in March. Two pandas, Damao and Ershun, were carried from Chengdu in Sichuan province to Toronto, the first time since 1985 that pandas have visited the city's zoo.

The members of the FedEx flight crew on the specially decaled MD 11F Freighter, the "FedEx Panda Express", were specifically chosen because of their experience of transporting large animals. An experienced loadmaster also travelled with the pandas to ensure the animals boarded and disembarked safely.

Before the flight, shipping enclosures were constructed to ensure safe and easy handling. The enclosures were 198 cm long, 142 cm wide and 137 cm high, and weighed approximately 360 kilograms. They had removable side panels to allow the attendants easy access to the pandas. The enclosures were placed in the pandas' habitat a few days before the flight to ensure that the animals had become accustomed to them before departure on March 25.

Ershun and Damao each had their own enclosure. Indeed, they were the only cargo on the plane. The spacious containers provided the pandas with plenty of room to move around and plexi-glass insets allowed them to see what was happening outside their enclosures. Necessary foodstuffs were also transported, including staples such as fresh water, bamboo shoots, and apples.

"For the flight, FedEx had a loadmaster with five panda shipments under his belt, including the first ever FedEx panda flight back in 2000. A veterinarian and two attendants had access to the pandas at all times during the flight. With their food stores and a comfortable cabin temperature, the pandas must have had an enjoyable journey halfway across the world," said Zhou.

Police escort

Upon arrival in Toronto, the pandas were escorted by police escort from the airport direct to the zoo. Damao and Ershun will stay in Toronto for five years before moving to Calgary Zoo for a further five years.

FedEx said the panda delivery service is free, and the company feels honoured to be called upon to ensure safe passage, thus indirectly helping with the efforts to save the endangered species.

But while these measures have clearly helped to elevate the brand image overseas, the foreign zoos are also well aware that their efforts will be rewarded by a constant stream of visitors.

In 1999, the arrival of the Yangyang and Lunlun gave Zoo Atlanta an international reputation overnight and the visitor numbers rose by 60 percent.

"When the pandas arrive in a new country, our research staff will stay at least six months to record their mating behaviour, eating habits, exercise preferences, sleep patterns and other characteristics. These detailed studies and research findings are always shared with our foreign counterparts," said Wang.

The plight of the pandas is a cause celebre worldwide, of course, but nowhere more so that in China and the most-famous recipient nation, the US. According to NetEase, one of China's main Internet portals, by October, the China-US Panda Workshop in Beijing had trained nearly 1,300 panda conservation professionals, with 100 of them travelling to the US to work alongside their US counterparts. Meanwhile, every zoo in the US has invested an average of US$614,000 in research and education programmes.




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