Na­tion hopes co­op­er­a­tion with for­eign sci­en­tists can help save the an­i­mal, Zhang Lei re­ports

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FOCUS -

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 blackand-white case of “diplo­matic fa­voritism”.

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 furor, 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 spe­cial­izes 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 $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 $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 goodqual­ity fa­cil­i­ties in which the pan­das can live and breed. And they also have to prove that

At a time when many of China’s lead­ing com­pa­nies are ex­pand­ing well

in­ter­na­tion­ally but per­haps have not yet de­vel­oped

strong brands over­seas, pos­i­tive brand as­so­ci­a­tions such as the panda are ex­tremely im­por­tant .”

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 ($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 nor­mal­ized 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 $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 pro­gram 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, cus­tom­ized 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 trav­eled 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.

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 hon­ored 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. Con­tact the writer at zhanglei@chi­


Cana­dian Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper (C), his wife Lau­reen, and Zhang Jun­sai, Chi­nese am­bas­sador, greet one of the pan­das that ar­rived in Toronto in March.

Mei Xiang, one of two pan­das on loan to the US Na­tional Zoo in Wash­ing­ton, gets to grips with a slice of frozen fruit.

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