Zoos Get Pandas, China Gets Uranium: Is This a Fair Trade?

A pregnant panda, a panda baby: both are guaranteed to generate headlines and, in the case of the latter, hoards of visitors eager to see a little roly poly creature who’s oh-so ke ai (the Mandarin word for cute, meaning “can be loved”).

It’s a given that people can’t seem to get enough of pandas. It’s also a fact that pandas are only found in the wild in China, in the hills of three provinces, Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu. Lately, China’s central government seems, more than ever, to be using its monopoly on pandas as a valuable bargaining chip to gain resources including uranium (to power nuclear plants) and access to renewable energy technology. China has received both of those in recent years in multiple-billion dollar exchanges for sending pandas to Scotland, France, Thailand and Canada.

When it comes to panda loans, China dictates the conditions, including the right to take back pandas when it wishes to breed them or because of diplomatic issues. Zoos pay China hefty fees (about a million dollars a year) to acquire a ten-year contract for a panda. That doesn’t include the costs of facilities and care for the animals (in state-of-the-art facilities with 24-hour video monitoring), which can spiral into the miliions of dollars, or the extra $600,000 required if a cub is born.

To cite just one example of the costs of keeping pandas: to feed Er Shun and Da Mao, the two pandas the Toronto Zoo acquired in March, FedEx Corp is flying in 600 to 900 kg (1,320 to 1,980 pounds) of bamboo each week from the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee.

“Nobody,” as David Wildt, head of the National Zoo’s reproductive sciences program, has commented, “would ever commit this kind of money to any other species.”

In the United States, only four zoos (in Atlanta, Memphis, Washington D.C. and San Diego) currently have pandas. Since 1998, American zoos that wish to acquire a panda must prove to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that they will become partners with China in panda conservation. This more stringent policy arose after some short-term loans of pandas in the 1980s and 1990s seemed to be “more about China’s rental fees and zoos’ admissions income than conservation,” according to National Geographic.

When China first started loaning pandas back in the 1980s, the country’s economy was not the powerful juggernaut that it has become. China needed not only cash but scientific know-how to help it transform a nature reserve “from an outline on a map into a genuine haven for wildlife.”

Today, while many of the panda loan funds paid by foreign countries are used for conservation efforts within China, including studying “the impact of habitat fragmentation on genetic diversity” and creating “plans to restore degraded bamboo forests,” some funds go to Chinese agencies, including the central government’s State Forestry Administration and the Wildlife Division of the Sichuan Provincial Forestry Department.

Giving pandas (and other rare animals including elephants) as a diplomatic gift is not a new phenomenon. The first case of panda diplomacy may date back to the 7th century, when a Chinese empress sent two pandas to the emperor of Japan. The past few decades of panda diplomacy very much reflect China’s changing economic and political status in the world. If zoos in the United States and other countries are considering acquiring a panda, should they have more of a say about how those funds are used?

Or put it this way: is a request for uranium too high a price for a ten-year loan of a very expensive guest, however ke ai she or he may be?