China’s cuddly ambassadors



China and Japan are expected to reach a broad agreement on panda leasing during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Beijing this week, bilateral sources close to the matter said.

The agreement would come amid a marked improvement in Sino-Japanese relations. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the signing and enactment of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two nations.

Beijing and Tokyo are likely to finalize the lease agreement during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s possible trip to Japan in June next year, the sources said, according to the Japan Times. Zoos in Sendai and Kobe have been floated as candidates to receive a panda.

China first gave a pair of pandas to Japan in 1972, during then Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei’s visit, to commemorate the normalization of bilateral ties. Since then, Japan has had perpetual “panda fever”.

Japan has nine giant pandas, according to Yomiuri Shimbun, three of which are at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo, five are at Adventure World in Shirahama of Wakayama and one is at Kobe Oji Zoo.

In December 2011, when then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda visited Beijing, China expressed willingness to lease more giant pandas to Japan. However, as relations between the two countries sharply deteriorated amid a territorial row over the Senkaku Islands, an agreement on the matter was shelved.

Baby Panda opened to public
A baby female Panda who was born on Aug 14 is shown to media at the Adventure World in Shirahama, Wakayama Prefecture on Sep 13, 2018. (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images )


Diplomacy with Chinese characteristics

Unique to China and adored around the world, giant pandas have played an important role in China’s diplomacy, or “Panda Diplomacy” as some experts call it.

Before 1982, giant pandas were given away to other countries by the Chinese government as a token of friendship and goodwill.

In 1941, a pair of giant pandas were given to the United States by Soong May-ling, wife of Chiang Kai-shek, former leader of the Kuomintang administration. They were the first batch of pandas given away as gifts.

After the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, more giant pandas were shipped abroad.

Two giant pandas were sent to the former Soviet Union by the Chinese government in 1957 and 1959 respectively.

In 1972, two giant pandas named Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing were given to the US as gifts after then President Richard Nixon’ s visit to China.

The bestowment of two giant pandas began the ‘year of the panda’ and a continuing fascination with the rare and vulnerable animals

From 1965 to 1980, five giant pandas were given to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

There were 23 giant pandas being sent to nine countries as gifts between 1957 to 1982. None of them got to come home after being given and all died abroad, according to China Daily.

However, the “give-away” policy was put to an end in the 1980s because of the decreasing number of the endangered bear. Instead, the “on-loan” policy started.

From 1984, China began to offer pandas to nations only on a 10-year loan. According to the agreement, panda cubs born in the United States to parents on loan from China must be returned to China before they are 4 years old.

From 1984 to 1988, zoos in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and several other cities of the United States managed to rent giant pandas from China.

A total of 48 giant pandas are living abroad now, in 14 countries including Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Netherlands, Singapore, Spain, Thailand, the UK, and the US.

Graphic by China Daily

The US has the most giant pandas outside China, with 12 living in four cities as Washington, Atlanta, San Diego and Memphis.

The rent money, which ranges from tens of thousands to millions of US dollars, was used to fund the conservation and breeding programs of the endangered species.

Including cubs, the current population count is approaching 2,060 and mature adults are estimated to constitute 50.5 percent of the total population, according to a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2016.

In the Red List of Threatened Species on Sept 4, 2016, which assesses a species’ conservation status, the IUCN reported the giant panda population has improved enough for the endangered species label to be downgraded to “vulnerable.”

However, the threat of declining bamboo availability due to climate change could, in the near future, reverse the gains made during the last two decades, the IUCN warned.

Panda on display again
Female giant panda Shin Shin is put on display again at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo on Mar 19, 2014, after the zoo ceased efforts to pair Shin Shin and male Ri Ri as they showed no signs of mating during the roughly two-week-long, once-yearly breeding season. (Kyodo)

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