For decades, China’s giant pandas have served as goodwill ambassadors while winning the hearts of millions
How can a diplomat who spends all day eating and sleeping manage to win over people from all around the world? For the black-and-white cuddly creature in question the answer is easy — simply be cute.
The irresistible charm of China’s national treasure, the giant panda, was borne out again in June when the Japanese public became transfixed on Shin Shin and her newborn cub at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo.
China introduced “panda diplomacy” in the 1950s, presenting 23 pandas as diplomatic goodwill gifts to nine countries from 1957 to 1982.
However, because of the panda’s endangered situation, China subsequently launched the “on-loan” system in 1984.
This enables overseas zoos to borrow pairs of Chinese pandas for either 10 or 15 years, with an annual fee of US$1 million per pair, as a part of international cooperative projects in giant panda breeding. The money is used to fund conservation and breeding programs for giant pandas.
Since then, zoos in 16 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the Netherlands, have borrowed pandas.
In Asia, eight zoos in six countries have received this honor, including three zoos in Japan, and one zoo each in South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia.
Japan’s Shin Shin and her mate Ri Ri, for example, have been on loan from China since February 2011, upon Japan’s request for new pandas after the death of Ling Ling, gifted to Ueno Zoo in 1992.
And wherever they go, the gentle giants attract fans.
Take Takahiro Takauji, a 39-year-old Web designer, who has been visiting Ueno Zoo every day since August 2011 to take photos for his Everyday Panda (Mainichi Panda) blog. Takauji said he could hardly wait for when Shin Shin’s cub is ready for public viewing.
“Their ‘doing-things-their-own-way’ attitude is just so lovely. I used to be physically fragile, but I have gained strength and become mentally strong as well due to my daily visits to the zoo. Pandas gave me confidence,” he told China Daily Asia Weekly.
In Thailand, a reality TV station named The Panda Channel provided nearly three years of around-the-clock coverage of the pandas at Chiang Mai Zoo until October 2012.
Each ‘panda loan’ typically marks a milestone in bilateral relations between China and the host country. For example, Malaysia received two pandas from China in 2014 to commemorate 40 years of diplomatic ties.
“They come to Malaysia as a symbol of the friendly relations between China and Malaysia,” said Huang Huikang, China’s ambassador to the country, at the unveiling of the pandas in Kuala Lumpur.
“They are also a special envoy of the Chinese people to better promote understanding and close cooperation between our two great countries.”
Or, as Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak put it, they are “symbols of peace”.
In 2012, when panda couple Kai Kai and Jia Jia landed in Singapore to mark the country’s 20 years of ties with China, they received rock-star treatment from the cheering crowds who turned out at the airport and zoo to welcome them.
South Korea’s Everland Resort uses smartphone apps and 360-degree screens in its Panda World enclosure to provide an immersive and high-tech visiting experience. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY ASIA WEEKLY)
Besides being China’s goodwill ambassadors, pandas also represent a huge revenue windfall for host countries.
Economists see the animals as a “good investment” as they bring in hordes of visitors — and even more so if they give birth to cubs during their stay.
Katsuhiro Miyamoto, professor emeritus at the Osaka-based Kansai University, told The Japan Times newspaper that Shin Shin’s delivery will boost Tokyo’s economy by 26.7 billion yen (US$240 million) a year. He estimated 5.66 million visitors will visit Ueno Zoo this year, up 47.2 percent from 3.8 million in 2016.
Everland Resort, the biggest amusement park in South Korea, has seen a huge jump in visitor numbers since panda couple Le Bao and Ai Bao arrived on a 15-year lease in March 2016.
With approximately 3 million visitors to the park’s Panda World every year, Everland has developed its own unique ways to attract the crowds.
“The young generation is familiar with information technology but they are relatively less familiar with nature these days,” said Kang Cher-won, a panda keeper at the park.
Kang explained how Everland uses IT to promote the conservation of endangered animals, including giant pandas, to young people.
Its Panda World enclosure features smartphone apps and 360-degree screens to provide an immersive and high-tech visiting experience.
An interactive game called Smile Battle is hugely popular, with visitors competing on screens for their own “smile score”, which reminds one of the smiling face of the giant panda.
“Many young visitors and children are using our interactive kiosks to learn about giant pandas and have grown to like them,” said Kang.
At the same time, it is a huge undertaking to look after the Chinese “diplomats”.
South Australia’s Adelaide Zoo, home to the southern hemisphere’s only two pandas, Wang Wang and Fu Ni, finds it especially challenging.
Adelaide is the driest state capital in Australia, with an annual average rainfall of just 549 millimeters, compared with more than 1,800 mm in Ya’an city, in Southwest China’s Sichuan Province. Ya’an is home of the China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Pandas (CCRCGP), where the two pandas came from.
Speaking to China Daily Asia Weekly, senior panda keeper Simone Davey said that Adelaide Zoo has many special facilities in place for the pandas to acclimatize. These include humidity radars, waterfalls and “chilled rocks”, where cold water is pumped underneath fake rocks for the pandas to keep cool.
To meet the pandas’ dietary needs, the zoo built a 9-hectare bamboo plantation and has a full-time horticulturist dedicated to feeding Wang Wang and Fu Ni and the red pandas who share the same exhibition area. (Despite their name, red pandas are not closely related to giant pandas.)
In the beginning, the zoo also involved the public to help expand the bamboo variety for the pandas. The horticulturist contacted home gardeners who had grown bamboo and then transplanted it in the zoo’s bamboo plantation.
The zoo can now supply a minimum of six to seven different bamboo species to the pandas daily on a self-sufficient basis. A panda’s daily diet consists almost entirely of the leaves, stems and shoots of various bamboo species.
Bamboo, a native plant in China, is mainly found in Sichuan, Hunan and some other regions and contains little nutritional value. Therefore, pandas must eat at least 12 to 38 kilograms every day to meet their energy needs. An average adult panda weighs around 100 kg.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), about 1 percent of the panda’s diet consists of other plants and even meat.
South Korea’s Everland provides as much as 50 kg of bamboo to each panda, which is a total of 36,500 kg per year.
“In order to meet all the other nutritional requirements, our zookeeper makes the bread known as wotou with a recipe from (China’s) CCRCGP,” Kang said, adding that fresh carrots and apples are provided along with the bamboo.
Because all giant pandas are loaned on a research basis, overseas zoos that house them need to send detailed reports regularly to China.
Davey at Adelaide Zoo said the reports are extremely detailed — from listing the pandas’ activity level and correlating it with the temperature, to the proportion of food that they eat. Normally, there will be three to four internal reports and a main one with all the details going back to China monthly.
Everland works with Seoul National University for further research, as well as with WWF-Korea to raise awareness of the once-endangered giant panda.
A year and a half since the arrival of Le Bao and Ai Bao, Kang, the panda keeper, is looking forward to seeing them grow healthily and expects them to become the animals that visitors want to see the most.
“We hope to see them having cubs in the future as they are the epitome of the cuteness of the panda,” said Kang.
When that happens, the furry diplomats will once again have worked their magic.
Native to China, the giant panda is considered a national treasure. The species was once found throughout the southern and eastern provinces, but due to expanding human populations and development, it is now restricted to around 20 isolated patches of bamboo forests in six mountain ranges. These locations are in the provinces of Sichuan in the southwest, and Shaanxi and Gansu in the northwest.
China now boasts a network of 67 panda reserves. The latest census in 2014 found that 1,864 giant pandas were living in the wild, an increase of 17 percent in the past decade. Another survey released in February 2015 found that China had 375 pandas living in captivity.
Due to China’s forest protection and reforestation efforts, in September 2016 the giant panda was downgraded from endangered to vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature on the global list of species at risk of extinction.
The average life span of captive pandas is 25 to 30 years while those in the wild are said to live for up to 20 years. Basi, the world’s oldest panda living in captivity, celebrated her 37th birthday this year in the eastern Fujian province.
The World Wildlife Fund, an organization dedicated to protecting the future of nature, has used the giant panda in its iconic black-and-white logo since 1961.
Cai Hong in Tokyo contributed to the story.