After five years of intense political negotiations between Beijing and Britain, the specially chartered plane finally touched down at Edinburgh airport. Anticipation was high amid the tangible sense of history in the making.
Having tracked the historic flight with 24-hour rolling news coverage, the world's media scrambled to snatch a glimpse of the two VIPs from China. They emerged, flanked by a dedicated team of aides, while high-ranking politicians waited in the wings to greet them. But it wasn't the Chinese Premier disembarking from the aircraft. It was a pair of giant pandas.
The hubris offers a telling insight into the peculiar practice of panda leasing. The pandas - Tian Tian and Yang Guang - were en route to Edinburgh Zoo to become the UK's first resident pandas in 17 years. Aside from five years of cajoling between the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS - the charity that owns Edinburgh Zoo) and the Chinese Wildlife Conservation Association, the deal to lease the pandas involved political and diplomatic negotiations at the very highest level.
Costs and conservation
In addition to the extra staff they require, the pandas - which remain the property of China - cost $1m (E726,607, £609,998) per annum over the 10-year period. And that's before you factor in the estimated £70,000 ($114,754, E83,381) the zoo must fork out each year for the pandas' 18,000kg of specially-grown bamboo. What's more, any cubs produced by the pair would be returned to China after two years. So why did the zoo go to all that trouble?
Apart from it being something of a coup (Britain’s last resident pandas, Ming Ming and Bao Bao, left London Zoo in 1994) the gains – according to the RZSS – were seen as both conservational and financial.
The zoo’s director of giant pandas, Iain Valentine, says: “RZSS sought to include giant pandas as part of their collection for a variety of reasons. Primarily as pandas are seriously endangered and we believe Scotland’s expertise in animal nutrition, genetics, embryology, immunology and veterinary medicine could add to the overarching conservation programme, but also as they are a flagship species to highlight other conservation work.
“The commercial benefits were obviously part of the picture too.” He says visitor numbers spiked by 50 per cent in the first year of the pandas’ residency, covering the costs of the lease fee.
Media attention, public affection
Traditionally, zoos that lease pandas expect to see a drop-off in visitors by the end of the second year when the initial excitement has ebbed away, but Valentine says that Edinburgh Zoo has evaded this, with its pair of pandas receiving their one millionth visit in December 2013 – two years after they first arrived. “Our business model regarding giant pandas has always been extremely conservative. To date we’ve not seen any tail off in interest and we’ve bucked the trend for a panda zoo in year two,” he says.
“Realistically there’ll be a reduction in visitor levels at some point, however no zoo that has ever had giant pandas in recent years have ever returned them – all have extended their agreements.”
Of course, the biggest boon for generating visits and publicity is the birth of a panda cub. At 1/900th of their mother’s size – one of the smallest ratios for a newborn mammal – panda cubs are appealing to visitors and newspaper editors alike, driving up gate receipts and earning huge amounts of publicity.
The media went into minor frenzy last summer after speculation that Edinburgh’s Tian Tian might be pregnant. However, in the end it’s suspected she may have miscarried.
In the absence of nature’s miracles, zoos have been forced to explore innovative showcasing methods to maintain the panda buzz. Toronto Zoo became the world’s latest recipient of cubs when it welcomed Er Shun and Da Mao in March 2013 and the centre has sought to heighten public interaction with the cuddly creatures by creating its Giant Panda Experience exhibit.
The centre offers conservation and educational features designed for adults and children, using a variety of graphics and model displays, as well as interactive features, multi-media games and audio-visual presentations.
One element particularly popular with visitors is the food display, which shows the amount of bamboo each panda eats in a day and also “panda poop” to illustrate the output of the bamboo. “At 8,000 sq ft (745 sq m), the Panda Interpretive Centre, is one of the largest panda educational facilities in the world,” says Toronto Zoo’s chief operating officer Robin Hale.
“The centre employs many state-of-the-art interactive features to convey the importance of habitat preservation for the protection and survival of many threatened and endangered wild species, not just the giant panda.”
Toronto Zoo’s approach appears to have paid off. Recent attendance figures show a year-on-year increase of 31 per cent for the five months since the exhibit opened, and the zoo says it’s ahead of budget on revenue projections.
So far it seems, the pandas are earning their keep, which is just as well when you consider their bamboo, specially flown in from a plantation in Memphis, comes to $200,000 (E145,000, £122,000) a year.
But as Hale states, it’s not just about the money. “We’ve always placed environmental protection awareness at the heart of our mission and giant pandas are global ambassadors for species survival and protection,” he says. “A key objective of the 21st century is to show people the connection between wildlife survival and protection and sustainable human development.”
The practice of obtaining pandas from China - the only country in the world to have them - is not new. Known as panda diplomacy, its growth in popularity has both aided and mirrored Beijing’s march towards superpower status.
Originating in the 1950s as a brainwave of Chairman Mao’s for opening up diplomatic channels, the gifting of pandas to foreign nations proved so popular that China gave 23 pandas to nine different countries from 1958 to 1982.
But since the mid-1980s, China has stopped giving away pandas for free, instead leasing them for around $1m (E727,000, £610,000) per year over what is typically a decade-long contract. But despite the price hike, the western public’s love of pandas remains undiminished, helped perhaps by their indelible position in the culture.
Ever since the WWF chose the panda as its logo in 1961, the bear has come to represent one of the most treasured and mysterious creatures of nature, while modern movies like box office hit Kung Fu Panda have attracted a whole new generation of fans.
Weighing up costs
But despite optimistic figures coming from Edinburgh and Toronto, Dave Towne, president of the Giant Panda Conservation Foundation for North America, insists leasing a panda is more a labour of love than a calculated business decision. “I spend most of my time discouraging various institutions from trying to go after pandas, unless they have a really strong commitment and a large cheque book,” he says, pointing out that zoos face additional costs for extra staff, feeding and entertaining Chinese visitors, as well as having to fund further research and projects.
“It’s being used effectively by China. As I’ve told a lot of elected officials in US cities - you’ve got to be brave as it’s a long commitment that will require $15-30m (E10.9-21.8m £9.1-18.2m).”
China’s use of panda diplomacy has drawn scrutiny in recent years. In a research paper published in Environmental Practice journal in September 2013, a team from Oxford suggest that since 2008, panda loans have come about at the same time China has been signing trade deals for valuable resources and technology.
The researchers claimed that panda loans made to Canada, France and Australia coincided with trade deals for uranium, while reporting that the Edinburgh panda exchange was closely followed by an estimated £2.6bn ($4bn, E3.1bn) worth of contracts between China and Scotland for the supply of salmon, renewable energy technology and Land Rover vehicles.
“No doubt it’s [panda diplomacy] about trade,” says Towne. “The Canadian loan came about after Prime Minister Stephen Harper's trade visit to China. Beijing wants a relationship with Canada because of its coal and oil supplies”
With China’s panda populations on an upward spike – the last WWF survey in 2004 estimated there were 1,600 pandas in the wild, and this number is since thought to have grown – leasing solely for the sake of conservation objectives now seems less plausible.
Despite attracting criticism from wildlife groups who say panda diplomacy is cruel and unnecessary, the benefits for China’s wild and captive panda populations appear to be evident.
Under wildlife treaties and the lease agreements, all of the money paid to China for the pandas is reinvested in conservation projects across the country’s north where the bears primarily reside. China gained huge media attention in September 2013 when it showcased 14 panda cubs artificially bred at Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding and Research Base, hailed as a major breakthrough.
“It’s amazing to see the amount of work that goes into preserving the pandas,” says Xiaoping Lu, division director at the CITES management authority in China. “The exchange of people between China and the US has helped towards knowledge sharing, leading to key developments in technical assistance, breeding technology and nutrition management.”
As for the pandas travelling overseas, Lu insists that no pandas are ever taken from the wild and that bears are carefully selected from the country’s estimated 300-strong population in captivity.
The notoriously secretive mating habits of the panda has led to perceptions of it being a fragile creature which is highly vulnerable to change, but this is actually a misconception.
Pandas living in captivity abroad often live to be around 30-years-old – far longer than their life expectancy in the wild, which is estimated by experts to be around 20 years.
“Pandas are very adjustable animals and the most resilient of any I’ve dealt with,” says Towne. “The care afforded to these loaned pandas is very extensive, both medically and nutritionally. They're well looked after and only two per cent die prematurely in captivity now, which is pretty incredible.”
Regardless of whether panda leasing is seen as a costly loss-leader, an investment or a huge revenue generator for the attractions, the success of conservation efforts and huge appetite for these creatures among visitors, means that successful panda diplomacy is likely to continue well into the future.