America’s love affair with pandas began shortly after President Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to China in 1972. The Chinese presented President Nixon with a pair of giant pandas , Ling- Ling and Hsing-Hsing who were installed at the zoo in Washington D.C and were an immediate hit . Twenty thousand visitors came to see the pandas on their first day at the zoo and , over the next two decades, millions of visitors followed suit . (Ling-Ling died in 1992 and Hsing – Hsing was euthanized in 1999).
The so-called ” panda diplomacy” was a big hit and generated much goodwill for China. Within weeks of the Nixon trip , British PM Edward Heath on a trip to China asked for and was given two pandas , Chia-Chia and Ching – Ching , which were promptly housed in the London zoo. In the years that followed , pandas were sent to zoos in many countries .In my naiveté, I had assumed that these pandas were given away by China and, even when I read about Pandas being on loan to foreign zoos , I never imagined that these were cash transactions .
In actuality , the Chinese government started charging stiff ” rental” fees for pandas as of 1984. The pandas were rented out on 10 year contracts and the usual rate was a cool million dollars ($ 1,000,000) per panda per year . If any cubs were born , the Chinese exacted a one-time fee of $ 600,000. Over the years , the situation has remained unchanged , except that the U.S government requires the Chinese to spend at least half the fees to be spent on improving conservation efforts for wild pandas and their habitat.
Why do people have such affection for pandas ? Several reasons have been advanced . The most plausible is that pandas have some mannerisms that are very similar to those of humans. When a panda sits on it’s behind and eats its food , using its ” thumbs” , it looks very much like a human baby. Its coloring also makes its eyes seem much bigger, something we humans are conditioned to find appealing.Personally , I think it’s also because pandas remind us( particularly toddlers) of large toy bears of the type you see as prizes at carnivals. Pandas are also shy , peaceful vegetarians and humans don’t find them threatening .
With all that , I find it amazing that zoo authorities are willing to pay such exorbitant sums of money to rent out pandas. I must also admit to a grudging admiration for the shrewdness of the Chinese who have turned a propaganda ploy into a lucrative commercial transaction . Originally , the purpose of ” panda diplomacy ” was to get Westerners to identify the Chinese with pandas ,i.e docile and peace-loving beings . (LOL). Somehow , that turned into an opportunity to make some money. The wonder is that we continue to fall for it .
Over the years , zoo authorities have found that having panda attractions does not improve the bottom line . After an initial surge of visitors , attendance at the zoos falls back to its former levels . Besides , pandas are expensive to maintain : $ 600,000 per year. Added to the stiff ” rental” fees, it is not surprising that pandas are a losing proposition for zoos. perhaps more zoos should follow the example of the San Diego zoo which re-negotiated its contract with the Chinese and had the rental fees cut in half.
P.S : In preparing to write this post , I came across an interesting tidbit about Chinese attitudes towards pandas.Until the last forty or fifty years , the Chinese do not seem to have been ” into ” pandas. While there are scattered references to mysterious creatures that could have been pandas , and a report of pandas being presented to Japan as a gift , there are no artistic representations of pandas prior ro the twentieth century . This is surprising since bamboo groves have been a favorite subject of Chinese artists for centuries and pandas live in bamboo forests . One explanation is that pandas have always been rare and artists may not have known enough about them to paint them . Another likely explanation is that pandas became ” popular” in China just about the same time as they did in America .