Panda diplomacy: The world’s cutest ambassadors

7 Mins read

Giant pandas play an important role on the international stage, providing unique opportunities and bridges for friendly exchanges between China and foreign countries.

As China’s unique national treasure, giant pandas are loved all over the world for their naive and cute appearance.

In social media, there are all kinds of posts and videos with pandas as the theme and protagonist all year round, and the BBC even wrote a special article to analyse this phenomenon, Why do we love pandas? 

In recent years, pandas have served as friendly ambassadors abroad many times and made indelible contributions to the development of friendly relations with foreign countries, making “panda diplomacy” a unique form of geopolitics.

Since the departure of MingMing from London Zoo in 1994, pandas have been welcomed back to British zoos for 17 years. It was hoped the arrangement would help overturn the fortunes of Edinburgh Zoo, which had been struggling with a decline in visitors and income at the time.

Negotiations for the loan arrangement took five years and Edinburgh Zoo agreed to pay a fee of $1 million (around £790,000) a year for the pair. Seven-year-olds YangGuang (Sunshine) and TianTian (Sweetie) lived at Edinburgh Zoo for 12 years before returning to China in 2023.

In 2011, Edinburgh Zoo spared no expense to welcome them, constructing a new home adorned with bamboo groves, caves, shelves, and pools. The zoo banners and merchandise also underwent a refreshing transformation. In their first year at the zoo, TianTian and YangGuang brought immense joy to people and attracted a significant influx of visitors and income to the city.

According to The Guardian, YangGuang and TianTian attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to Edinburgh Zoo each year, with attendance jumping 51% in 2011.

Before the pandas arrived, Edinburgh Zoo reported a £1.2 million deficit. However, according to the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), in 2012 its total income jumped from £5 million to £15 million.

Despite the imminent expiration of the 10-year panda lease in 2021, the RZSS incurred a £2 million loss due to the management of Covid-19 restrictions at the Edinburgh Zoo. Nevertheless, relying on government loans and fundraising activities, they secured a two-year extension for the contract.

According to international law and other regulations, pandas are owned by China and any animals born overseas must be returned to their home country before they reach a certain age.

On December 4, 2023, YangGuang and TianTian ended their 12 years of diplomatic service in Scotland. Many people learnt the news and rushed to the zoo to say goodbye to the pandas before they left.

Panda Tian Tian
Panda Tian Tian [Ruiyang Deng]

Susan, who lives in Leeds, made a special trip with her husband and children to see them again when she learnt that the pandas were going home in December.

“I feel so excited, when they first came here it was an emotional time. They had a beautiful enclosure and there were long queues of people hoping to see them, we queued for over an hour just to see them and went and bought special tickets. It was still very emotional to see them this time and it was emotional to say goodbye to them.”

Jamie, a panda keeper, had fond memories: “The first time I went to feed YangGuang, I took a baby carrot and she was there looking at me and my heart just melted. They are the rock stars of the animal world and we need to do a lot of things to bring attention to nature to love animals. We find a lot of people come from out of town, not just once, but two, three, four times.”

The presence of pandas can enable more people to understand the threats that wildlife faces in the wild and the actions they can take to help. Pandas connect people to nature, and the power to inspire behavioural change is invaluable.

RZSS launched a prize draw before the pandas returned to China. Animal lovers in the UK were given the chance to feed the pandas. To mark their time at the zoo, the organisation selected a winner each month from February to June 2023 to enjoy a “magical moment” with the pandas.

The chief executive officer of RZSS, David Field told us: “Last year we launched our Farewell Pandas campaign, which attracted many visitors to say thank you and goodbye to the pandas. I’m pretty sure that people in the UK, have become more aware of the animals in China and the work that is being done to protect the pandas and the many other animals in China, and I’m sorry to see them go, but I also know that it’s late in their lives and it’s important to be able to go home.”

As well as giving tourists from different countries a chance to view the pandas, it is important that the pandas go abroad to collaborate with zoologists from different countries in research to contribute to the conservation of the endangered animals.

“The giant pandas YangGuang and TianTian are incredible ambassadors for nature. They are truly special animals in Edinburgh and humans have a deep connection with them. We have carried out extensive research into the breeding, nutrition and veterinary care of pandas and have shared this information with the China Wildlife Conservation Society and the panda carers at the China Wild or Breeding Centre,” RZSS said.

Panda poop can be used to make rolling papers [Ruiyang Deng]

While in Scotland, zoo staff and veterinarians from China and the UK conducted artificial insemination attempts. The birth of a panda cub can be expected to bring £50 million in economic benefits to Scotland.

However, the breeding of pandas in captivity poses considerable challenges, as these bears tend to lose interest in natural mating or may not instinctively know how to mate.

Female giant pandas experience a brief reproductive window, with peak mating suitability lasting only 24 to 36 hours during spring heat cycles. Despite continuous efforts over the years, these attempts did not yield any cubs, with eight artificial insemination attempts declared unsuccessful.

The panda breeding programme came to a halt in 2021 due to the unfortunate development of a tumour in YangGuang’s testicle in 2018, which was successfully removed through surgery in November of that year.

Despite the failure to successfully breed, China’s cooperation with various countries in studying pandas has allowed them to learn from each other and the experiences of different countries in cultural preservation and transmission, and the panda population has grown significantly in recent years.

In October 2021, data released in the Biodiversity Conservation in China white paper revealed that the wild population of giant pandas in China has increased from 1,114 to 1,864 over the past 40 years.

The artificially-bred giant panda population has experienced rapid and high-quality growth, leading to an improvement in the International Union Conservation of Nature [IUCN] status of giant pandas from endangered to vulnerable.

In October 2022, according to a report by Xinhua News Agency, the global captive giant panda population reached 673, nearly doubling in the past decade. Concurrently, the number of wild giant pandas is also on the rise.

History of panda diplomacy

Panda diplomacy goes through several stages: gift, commercial loan and academic loan. China has employed panda diplomacy to advance economic partnerships with other nations and bolster its “soft power”.

The official start of panda travelling for the country can be traced back to a thousand years ago. According to Japan’s Royal Annals, in 685, Wu Zetian gave two “white bears” and 70 “white bear” furs to Emperor Tenmu of Japan. Chinese giant panda expert Hu Jinchu says the “white bear” refers to the giant panda, so the “panda diplomacy” history to the Tang Dynasty.

More recently “panda diplomacy” developed in the context of “PandaMania”, after the French missionary Alphonse David sent a giant panda to Paris in 1869, which aroused the curiosity of the Western world about this new species.

Pandas Ling Ling
Pandas given to the United States by China during President Nixon’s visit in 1972 [Wikimedia: AP]

Since President Nixon visited China in 1972, giant pandas have played a crucial role in Sino-American relations. With the political courage and wisdom of leaders from both countries, they achieved a historic handshake across the Pacific, leading to the normalisation of Sino-American relations.

In 1982, responding to a global call to protect endangered animals, China announced the cessation of free panda gifts abroad. Pandas began to “travel abroad” mainly through exhibitions or commercial leases.

After the era of pandas as “state gifts” officially ended, many countries that were eager to obtain giant pandas began to pay for short-term loans to exhibit them.

In 1994, two pandas from the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding travelled to Adventure World in Japan for the first time as “scientific exchange ambassadors.”

Subsequently, many zoos in South Korea, France, and the United States began long-term cooperative research with China.

To better protect pandas, on September 12, 2007, the National Forestry Administration of China officially announced that “China will no longer gratuitously donate giant pandas to foreign countries but will continue to engage in collaborative research.” The leasing duration is strictly regulated, requiring the leasing country to sign a giant panda breeding and research cooperation agreement with the Chinese side.

Typically, a pair of healthy pandas with reproductive capabilities are leased for a period of 10 to 15 years, with the option for appropriate renewal upon expiration. Any country receiving Chinese giant pandas must pay $1 million (around £790,000) annually for each panda, and all offspring born belong to China.

Since then, China has sought goodwill from dozens of countries using its charming national treasure. It is estimated that panda diplomacy has brought Beijing $300 million over the past 30 years. As of December 2023, a total of 56 pandas are travelling abroad, cooperating in panda conservation research in 20 countries worldwide.

What kind of pandas can travel overseas?

Giant pandas travelling overseas represent the image of China’s wildlife conservation to a certain extent, and pandas that can go on “international missions” are mostly stars.

Pandas sent abroad are generally in their juvenile years. Under artificial captive conditions, the lifespan of giant pandas can reach up to 38 years, with an average lifespan ranging from 20 to 30 years.

Scottish Citylink iIRIZAR16 in giant pandas livery
Scottish Citylink buses celebrated Edinburgh’s giant pandas with special livery [Wikimedia: Stephen J Mason]

Each time a giant panda is selected for overseas dispatch, it undergoes rigorous screening. Factors such as excessively long mouths, non-round faces, unclear fur colouration, poor health, or a tendency to engage in fights may lead to exclusion from the selection process.

Besides possessing a flawless physique, there are exceptionally stringent requirements for mental well-being. Pandas designated for overseas travel can not display stereotypical behaviour (unusual or repetitive actions). Consequently, attaining the status of a qualified “rock star” proves to be a formidable challenge for them.

The process of naming them is thoughtful, often involving open public voting, the collection of suggestions based on the pandas’ characteristics, public sponsorship, and various other considerations.

The naming of pandas undergoes meticulous consideration. In the case of “Kobe,” born during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Juan Antonio Samaranch, the former president of the International Olympic Committee, expressed immense joy upon receiving the news. He promptly bestowed the name “Kobe” upon the panda, aligning it with the mascot of that year’s Olympics.

The giant panda’s diplomatic journey is closely linked to the process of modern China’s national construction, and its connotation is therefore far beyond its biological significance.

As an animal and an image, it crosses the barriers of language and culture. The giant panda has played an important role in connecting nature and the State, science and society.

Featured image by Adam Harangozó via Wikimedia Commons.

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