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Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2010



Pandas coming to Ueno part of bigger pattern

Staff writer

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government signed a deal with China in July to lease two giant pandas for 10 years for Ueno Zoo, which has been without a panda since the famous Ling Ling died in 2008.

News photo
Leaving: A male panda is scheduled to come to Ueno Zoo in Tokyo next year. COURTESY OF TOKYO METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT

The animals are scheduled to make their Tokyo public debut next spring.

Behind the cuteness factor, China has been using pandas as a tool of international diplomacy for decades. Many pandas have been given or leased to other countries.

Following are some questions and answers on pandas and diplomacy:

What is "panda diplomacy"?

Wild pandas only live in China. The endangered giant panda is considered a national treasure and the international conservation group WWF estimates there are around 1,600 in the wild.

Because pandas are so scarce, cute and popular, the nations that get a few are understandably very pleased. Some observers note that China has built on those feelings to help establish friendly relationships with its counterparts — hence the term panda diplomacy.

What forms has this diplomacy taken?

Some news reports have panda diplomacy dating back as far as ancient times.

Japanese historical documents say a Chinese empress gave the emperor of Japan a pair of white bears, which specialists think were pandas, and 70 pelts of fur in 685.

In what would be considered modern times, the first recipient of a panda was the former USSR, a fellow socialist state, in the midst of the Cold War in 1957.

In 1972, two pandas were given to the United States in commemoration of President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China.

The same year, China donated the pandas Lan Lan and Kang Kang to Japan as the two countries normalized diplomatic relations. The so-called panda boom ensued.

In 2005, China offered Taiwan panda as a gift. The administration of Chen Shui-bian, known as a hardliner against China, rejected the offer as a ploy to unite the island nation with the mainland.

Three years later, however, a pair of pandas arrived in Taipei as the new pro-China administration led by Ma Ying-jeou took office. The pair were named after the Chinese word meaning "reunion of family members."

Has anything changed in panda diplomacy?

China used to give the pandas to other countries. After the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which bans international trade of the giant panda, took effect in 1975, China changed its policy to loaning them out. Ownership of pandas remains with China and the recipient pays a lease.

Which pandas are coming to Ueno Zoo?

Tokyo is getting Bili, a 143-kg male, and Xiannu, a 124-kg female. The metropolitan government said it is planning to ask the public to give Japanese names to the two pandas.

Bili was born in August 2005 and Xiannu in July 2005. Both are from Sichuan Province.

They are active, have healthy appetites and are growing well, according to Ueno Zoo officials.

How much will it cost to lease the two pandas?

The total comes to ¥80 million a year, with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government shouldering the cost. Gov. Shintaro Ishihara complained in February about the rate.

"Since the (lease) costs are not low at all, we asked for a discount," Ishihara said at a news conference. "We had them cut by around ¥4 million."

Harutoshi Kobayashi, a metropolitan government official, explained that the lease fee will be used by China to preserve the species' habitat and to conduct research on the animals.

Why has the metropolitan government decided to lease the pandas this time?

Following the death of Ueno Zoo's remaining panda, Kobayashi said many people asked the metropolitan government to bring in some more. Their requests moved the government to approach China.

"Many visitors come from outside Tokyo still believing that the panda is still in the zoo," Kobayashi said. "Many requests have come from many visitors, especially children, saying that they want to see a panda once again."

While acknowledging that some people like pandas, Ishihara said in July he is not among them. "I do not think (pandas) are cute at all," he told reporters.

Even if the leasing costs are high, Ishihara said the expense is justifiable.

"If there are some people who really want to see them and it will contribute to ticket sales at the zoo, that is good," he said.

Which zoos in Japan currently breed pandas?

Oji Zoo in Kobe has one panda it is leasing from China, a 14-year-old female named Tantan.

Adventure World in Shirahama, Wakayama Prefecture, has eight pandas. It said it is leasing the animals from China but declined to disclose the cost.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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