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Rented Pandas and Zoos - Attraction or Distraction?

The media has recently been falling over themselves  to report the arrival of two rent-a-pandas at the Edinburgh Zoo. Yes indeed, for a yearly rental fee exceeding that of the most sumptuous London penthouse apartment, the Zoo now has on display two pandas raised in captivity in China for a contract of ten years.  Edinburgh Zoo expects a significant rise in visitor numbers to offset the rental costs, but let’s take a closer look at this pandamonium.

First, these are rented animals, to begin with a dicey practice for a zoo to get involved in. Would they rent a camel, an elephant, a polar bear? Not on your life, but a panda is different somehow. The rental fee has not quite been disclosed by the Zoo, as this would perhaps be crass. But journalists have mentioned $1 million per year, and we are not sure if this is for both “Sweetie” and “Sunshine” as the pandas are known, or whether this is $1 million for each. The Edinburgh Zoo last year lost £1.5m, saw its visitor numbers slump 15% to just under 550,000 and had to be rescued with a £2m bank loan. This year it has seen directors suspended for alleged misconduct. One was exonerated and reinstated, one was dismissed and its previous chief executive left, according to the Guardian newspaper and the Born Free website.  They seem a bit like Lehman Brothers in terms of their investment practices.

Second, where does all the rent-a-panda money go? China says it is for panda conservation, but I have my doubts. There are some wild pandas in China. Little is being done to provide additional protected habitat for them. There are many pandas in captive breeding programmes, but pandas being pandas, once in captivity they seem to shut down reproductively and require a number of assisted breeding interventions to make baby pandas. Big time assisted breeding, as in artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, etc. But what is the future of those “assisted” pandas? More rent-a pandas? The only reintroduction attempt into the wild was a disaster, and the single panda involved died. This was kept quiet by the Chinese authorities for many months… In addition, is the public now convinced that Edinburgh Zoo will “save” pandas, and that therefore the dire situation of wild pandas is now being adequately addressed? Conservation via confuscation? 

Third, what will Edinburgh do with these rent-a-pandas? Breed them? Good luck there, and for what purpose? To have more captive pandas that cannot be returned to the wild and thus contribute zip to real panda conservation? And who owns the offspring under their contract with China? Has Edinburgh Zoo read the fine print on the contract? Born Free provides this analysis from other zoos with rent-a-pandas:

" “We are not aware of any revenue coming in associated with our pandas. It is a common misconception about keeping pandas.” Christina Simmons San Diego Zoo. The Daily Record January 30th 2011

"The four zoos (Washington, Atlanta, Memphis and San Diego) collectively spent $33 million more on pandas from 2000 to 2003 than they received in revenue from exhibiting them.” Washington Post August 2005

"It was astonishing too see, in most cases, how much more it was costing the institutions than that [the panda exhibits] were bringing in.” David Towne. Giant Panda Foundation. National Geographic News 2006

"The loan agreements, most spanning ten years, have become a financial headache for the Nation’s [Washington] zoo” National Geographic News March 2006"

 Yet Edinburgh went ahead.  Already in debt, they rented pandas. We do hope it will bring positive finances to the zoo so they can pay back their bank loan. But it has to be seen for what it is – a costly gimmick. No conservation value, no benefit to wild pandas or other species. Zoos have an educational and conservation responsibility to the wild relatives of the species they display. Renting pandas is not the way forward. Who will pay the rental fees two or three years from now when the public droves and their gate fees have diminished? Does Edinburgh have a long-range plan? If so, let’s hear from them.

Picture Credit: BBC Nature

Posted by Pieter Kat at 14:35

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