And Finally

The bear necessities

How the pandemic is making life difficult for pandas overseas


Bamboo bilaterals: pandas have long been a tool of Chinese diplomacy

When two giant pandas from China flew into Toronto airport in 2013, their arrival was deemed important enough to merit a personal welcome from then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Loans of bears like these are part of Beijing’s diplomatic outreach. But there’s always the risk that the Chinese might repatriate their pandas should relations with their host country deteriorate.

The Sino-Canadian mood has darkened since the detention of Huawai’s chief financial officer (and daughter of its founder) Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver last year (see WiC458). An last week Calgary Zoo said that it would be sending the two pandas back to China – is there a connection between the two stories?

Probably not. In this case the Covid-19 pandemic seems to be the reason why Canada has cut short the 10-year loan. Zookeepers say they have struggled to source enough bamboo from China to feed the duo because flights have been so disrupted by the virus.

Almost all of the panda diet is made up of fresh bamboo and each adult consumes about 40kg daily. The bears can be picky too, refusing to eat bamboo from new sources or shoots that have aged too much in transit.

In other locations where pandas are exhibited, bamboo has been grown locally. But that’s not the case in Calgary. “This is too much stress on my team and on the pandas. Can you imagine not having bamboo for a few days?” zoo boss Clément Lanthier told CBC News.

“It’s too unpredictable,” he complained, insisting that the animals’ welfare was his overriding concern.

Given China’s testy relations with “Five Eyes” countries (including the US and Australia, see this week’s “China and the World”), Canadian diplomats won’t want to see the bears suffer from health concerns or, worse, die on their overseas sabbatical, as happened in Japan 10 years ago (see WiC78).

Another bear died unexpectedly at Chiang Mai zoo in Thailand last year, unleashing an angry reaction on Chinese social media.

Two other pandas that may soon be packing their suitcases for a return to their Sichuan birthplace were first presented to Hong Kong’s Ocean Park in 2007 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the territory’s return to Chinese sovereignty.

The two bears have actually enjoyed a rather productive pandemic, with one falling pregnant through a natural mating cycle in April after more than a decade of trying.

Ocean Park’s finances aren’t quite as fruitful, having suffered in recent years as more mainland Chinese tourists opted to shun Hong Kong for other destinations.

The coronavirus has made things much worse by restricting cross-border movement.

Arrivals from mainland China plunged to a mere 196 people during the ‘Golden Week’ May 1 holiday.

Last week Ocean Park said it was counting on the dispatch of government funding worth HK$5.4 billion ($694 million) in order to avoid bankruptcy. If it doesn’t get the money it needs the park will have to shut, meaning that the two (or possibly three) pandas will return to mainland China.

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