Pandas not visitors' pets, experts say

Pandas not visitors' pets, experts say
PHOTO: Reuters

Over the years, China's endangered giant pandas have been loved too much. And too little.

A national symbol as well as a big draw, both in visitors and revenue, pandas have long been sought for leasing by zoos nationwide. However, their care and protection have sometimes been secondary to their moneymaking potential, experts say.

The issues surrounding giant panda leases are very serious, and more government regulations are needed urgently, said Wang Dajun, a professor at Peking University who has been involved in protecting wild giant pandas for years.

"In some zoos, visitors can interact with giant pandas as long as they pay money," Wang said. "Giant pandas are an endangered species. They are not pets. Some zoos are treating them just like normal pets.

"It also gives the public the wrong impression that they are not endangered anymore."

In May last year, the State Administration of Forestry tightened regulations on leasing giant pandas to zoos. It has become increasingly difficult for small zoos to attract visitors by displaying pandas.

Take the case of Jinyi, one of two pandas leased by Zhengzhou Zoo from Sichuan's panda research centre and who died of acute gastroenteritis last year.

Born in 2007, Jinyi was leased in 2011 to the zoo in the capital of Henan province from the Giant Panda Protection and Research Center of China.

An investigation found that the zoo had transferred Jinyi and a second giant panda to another den without permission from the forestry authority. It also said that poor management practices had contributed to the panda's death.

After Jinyi died, the zoo displayed smaller red pandas. But many visitors were disappointed, because these animals looked nothing like the giant pandas.

"I took my grandson to the zoo three times last year, but we only saw a giant panda once," said Geng Guochang, 70. "My grandson always asked me where the giant pandas were and when could we see them again."

Zhang Zhihe, head of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, said, "In the past, many zoos in China had pandas, but the situation has changed.

"The criteria for feeding pandas are very high. Many zoos cannot have them because the condition of dens and the zoos' management practices, keepers and veterinarians do not meet the criteria," Zhang said.

Approval needed

There were 394 captive pandas in China at the end of January.

The Wolong National Nature Reserve in Wenchuan, Sichuan province, has 201; the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Sichuan has 140; and the rest are in other provinces, Beijing and Chongqing.

The Chengdu base has loaned 30 pandas to 14 zoos around the country, while the Wolong reserve has leased 69 pandas to more than 30 zoos.

The forestry administration introduced the first regulations on the giant panda leasing system in 2011, outlining how to lease and care for the animals.

Zoos need approval from local forestry authorities and must prove they can look after the animals. Teams of experts are sent to investigate qualifications, and cubs under the age of 2 and wild giant pandas may not be leased.

Tang Chunxiang, a member of such a team, told Sanlian Life Weekly that zoos prepare on many levels. The temperature-controlled den must be at least 100 square meters and the panda's outdoor environment must include entertainment, plants and pools.

The panda's diet is also important and the zoo must have different types of bamboo, fruit and other food. Zookeepers and veterinarians must be trained.

"A zoo has to invest about 1 million yuan (S$220,000) on hardware and software in the beginning and about 150,000 yuan every year for daily maintenance," Tang said.

Overall care has been a problem at some zoos, with panda deaths reported in past years in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, Nanjing, Jiangsu province and Jinan in Shandong province.

In May last year, the forestry administration conducted a nationwide inspection of the panda leasing system and found many problems. Some leases were halted as the animals were being displayed inappropriately or were being exploited to make money.

This June, the administration said that strict inspections and supervision of the pandas' conditions should be introduced, and zoos should not profit by allowing photos to be taken with pandas.

Zhang Hemin, head of the administrative bureau at the Wolong National Nature Reserve, said, "There is a set procedure to follow, but we have seen violations where the enclosure, keeper, veterinarian or food supply chain did not meet the required standards."

He said there were cases of zoos outsourcing pandas to private companies for profit, but this was stopped after the inspections.

"Now zoos applying to borrow pandas will have to send their keepers and veterinarians to Wolong for three months' training, and the reserve will send inspection teams to the zoos every year," he said. "We had a training and inspection system before, but it was not that strict."

Two pandas loaned to a domestic zoo could pull in as much as 600,000 yuan a year, he said.

"But pandas are seen as the flagship of global wildlife protection efforts. They are supposed to have a positive impact, promoting awareness, knowledge and concepts in terms of wildlife and environmental protection," Zhang said. "Leasing pandas must focus on the public interest."

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