With bread prices rising, governments are having to think about upping the circus quotient: hence, the conspiracy theories run, the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton; and hence the signing of an agreement this month for Edinburgh Zoo to receive two pandas, Tian Tian and Yangguang. Royalty and pandas have more in common than you might think: both have found their ecological niche shrinking, but have managed to cling on by rebranding themselves as a tourist draw; both have suffered over the years from a failure to renew the gene pool; and this helps to explain why both come under intense public pressure to perform sexually and produce offspring.
Here the similarities end, however. In the quest for heirs, for example, royalty has never (so far as anyone knows) had to suffer the indignities of electroejaculation and artificial insemination. Also, to be fair to the royal family, next to pandas they seem quite reasonably priced. At least one newspaper announced, in an excess of enthusiasm, that China was ‘giving’ the pandas to Edinburgh, but China stopped handing them out to foreign dignitaries 30 years ago, having spotted their potential as currency earners. These days all pandas are leased out, typically for 10 years at a time. The standard fee paid by the four US zoos that hold pandas – Memphis, San Diego, Zoo Atlanta and the National Zoo in Washington DC – has been $1 million a year for each pair, plus roughly the same again in sponsorship for panda research and conservation projects, plus an annual premium of $600,000 if the pandas mate and produce cubs (only the Memphis pandas have failed on this score); and then you have to throw in the costs of building or adapting enclosures and ensuring a regular supply of the right bamboo.
A new panda will always pull the crowds, as will a cub; but it isn’t clear that over the lifetime of a lease they will bring in enough revenue to balance the books. Edinburgh hasn’t said how much it’s paying. Zoos outside the US have generally been charged a preferential rate, and even the US zoos have been negotiating discounts; still, the sums are likely to be substantial. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland has been making noises about the lack of private sponsorship, while spokespeople for the Scottish government having been making pointed remarks about tight budgets.
The animal rights organisations Born Free and OneKind (formerly Advocates for Animals) have seized on the fees to complain about the ‘exploitation’ of pandas, arguing that the RZSS should be throwing its weight behind conservation in China. The argument is hollow: captive pandas don’t somehow cancel out wild ones; if anything, panda rental agreements are an effective way of making sure funds go towards conservation. Even in the nature-averse culture of Mao’s China, pandas and their habitats had to be protected because of their high international profile. That’s still the case: the more fuss we make, the more we are willing to pay, the better for the security of the species. Thanks in part to funding and expertise from the West, understanding of panda biology and the management of their environment has improved immeasurably in the last 20 years: this is the reason for the upsurge in mating among captive pandas as well as the signs of recovery among wild populations. Indeed, as things stand there is a strong chance that pandas will outlast the British monarchy.