This year has already offered a series of unfortunate events for panda enthusiasts in the West. In January, Edinburgh Zoo in the U.K. announced they would send their pandas back to China after they failed to produce cubs. Later that month, Finland said it is considering returning a pair of pandas due to mounting costs.
These events have called into question China’s so-called panda diplomacy, an instrument of soft power cloaked as conservation. Although zoos hosting pandas continue to send China millions a year in conservation fees, the population of the vulnerable species remains alarmingly low in the wild.
Since 1972, when China gifted Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., more than 22 countries have received giant pandas from China, the latest being Qatar. China sells agreements with zoos as part of conservation efforts and accordingly, demands high fees. Pairs of pandas are loaned to zoos for $1 million a year. If any panda cubs are born, zoos must fork out an extra $600,000.
It’s easy to buy into China’s conservation rhetoric. After all, the leading organization in wildlife conservation, the World Wildlife Fund, famously adopted the giant panda as its logo in 1961. The number of living pandas has also significantly increased as a result of human breeding efforts. In 2016, their status was downgraded from “endangered” to “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
However, less than 20 cubs have ever been born abroad, calling into question the true efficacy of zoos pouring in millions of dollars into hosting pandas with the aim of conservation. Pandas are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, partly due to their incredibly short breeding window. In 2019, Australia extended its loan agreement for A$9.1 million after multiple failed pregnancies, but their pandas have still failed to produce a cub to this day.
Furthermore, environmentalists say that the disproportionate attention paid to the protection of pandas has come at the expense of other endangered species. Countries are slowly waking up to this reality. One of the reasons that the Finnish government is unwilling to continue to fund its zoo’s pandas is because the dual costs of high upkeep and paying China’s high loan agreement fees are higher than what the country spends on protecting its own endangered species.
In fact, there is little evidence that the funds sent to China are truly aiding the conservation of pandas in the wild. Dr. Sarah Bexell, a former director of conservation education at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, points out that panda cubs born in captivity have few survival instincts so cannot survive in the wild. Attempts at reintroduction have been unsuccessful. Of the 10 pandas released into the wild since 1983, six were recaptured after significant weight loss, and one was found dead. There haven’t been any recent attempts at reintroduction.
According to Bexell, if real conservation is to be achieved, China must focus on the root causes of wild panda decline: habitat destruction and overpopulation. Attempts by China to designate “conservation areas” have had lackluster results so far. Protected areas lack centralized management, enabling certain groups to prioritize economic activities like tourism over safeguarding ecological functions critical to supporting giant pandas. Moreover, the fragmented nature of reserves makes it incredibly hard for wild pandas to find sufficient bamboo and mate.
This points to the fact that China’s real reason for sending pandas abroad is political, hence the oft-used term “panda diplomacy.” A 2013 paper found a correlation between panda loans and major long-term international trade deals. Edinburgh Zoo received its two pandas as part of a trade deal worth 2.6 billion pounds in 2011. The same year, Canada and France each acquired a pair of pandas after signing uranium export agreements. China uses pandas to build guanxi, a Chinese term used to describe personalized networks of influence, trust, reciprocity,and loyalty.
China also sees pandas as a method to expand its soft power – the process by which countries try and exert influence through their cultural attractiveness. In this case, the literal softness of pandas makes them the perfect ambassadors for China. Behavioral scientists have found that seeing pandas sets off hedonic mechanisms given that they remind many people of babies; they have big eyes and a big head in proportion to their bodies and move around like toddlers.
However, their cuteness should not distract zoos from the reality: pandas are not only a huge financial burden but are also used as a political tool by China to further its own interests. Most importantly, zoos should not be sucked into the fantasy that they are aiding conservation by hosting pandas; the Chinese are simply using money from zoos to keep this symbolic national creature alive in captivity for human consumption. Although this may sadden some panda enthusiasts, more countries should follow Finland’s example and consider returning their pandas.