Can we keep it? Tokyo begs China to let beloved pandas stay

Shin Shin, right, gave birth to Xiang Xiang in Japan in December 2017.
PHOTO: Reuters

Cute, clumsy and endlessly entertaining, giant pandas are by far the most popular animals at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoological Gardens – but there are growing concerns in Japan that their enclosures may soon be empty.

The zoo has three pandas, with the most popular being Xiang Xiang, born in June 2017. She was due to be returned to China last year, but the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which manages the zoo, was able to negotiate an extension of her stay in Japan.

That extension runs out in December, however. That leaves her parents, Ri Ri and Shin Shin, in Tokyo, but the 10-year leases on these pandas will also run out in February, potentially leaving Tokyo’s largest zoo without its favourite attraction.

Visitors queue up to see baby Xiang Xiang on June 12, 2017, the first day of her public debut at Ueno Zoological Gardens. PHOTO: Reuters

“The pandas are the most popular animals here – especially the cub,” said Kay Sato, a spokeswoman for the zoo.

“We have always known that she will have to return to China this year as she is needed for breeding, but we are hoping that the adult pandas will be able to stay longer.”

A Tokyo government official said that negotiations were ongoing about extending the lease of Ri Ri and Shin Shin, both aged 15, for another five years. There was no statement on how those talks were progressing or how much such a deal would cost. 

Xiang Xiang has been credited with an increase in visitors to the zoo, which has had to introduce a ticketing system to reserve slots to watch her gambol around her enclosure.

There is a daily limit of 6,500 people for Xiang Xiang alone, with slots typically reserved weeks in advance.

“We get quite a few people who are huge fans of the pandas and they come quite regularly, so they are very sad that she has to go in the near future,” said Sato.

If Tokyo is unable to strike a deal with China about her parents in the coming weeks, she said, it will be “very unfortunate” – particularly if the zoo is not able to secure replacement pandas.

A panda enthusiast poses for a photograph after the public viewing of baby panda Xiang Xiang on June 12, 2017. PHOTO: Reuters

Even Yuriko Koike, the Tokyo governor, has waded into the issue, declaring at a recent press conference that her administration will do everything in its power to keep Ri Ri and Shin Shin.

“Pandas are lovable,” she said. “We will proceed with negotiations with all our strength and embracing the desire of Tokyo residents.”

Yet there is growing unrest among the legions of panda lovers in the city.

“It’s not necessary to send them back,” said one poster on the 2-Channel online messaging site.

“The coronavirus is spreading and, in my opinion, it would be nothing but trouble to send them back to China. It all depends on the discussions with Beijing.”

On Twitter, one user said: “The current situation is really tough. It would be better for Xiang Xiang to stay so she is safe and secure in a familiar environment.”

Another added: “She should not return to China, even if they insist.”

Kevin Short, a professor who specialises in environmental education at the Tokyo University of Information Sciences, said the affection that Japanese feel for pandas is not a question of their ecological or cultural importance – it’s purely a question of cuteness.

“They have those round faces with black eye patches, they’re sort of pudgy, they are always entertaining to watch, they’re clumsy and they’re funny,” he said. “Of course the Japanese are going to find them cute and irresistible.

“My wife is up in arms about them having to go back to China,” he added. “Before the pandemic limited travel, she used to go into Tokyo regularly to see the baby panda – even if the last time she had only got a brief glimpse of it before it went to sleep and her time was up.

“Now she’s pretty resentful that the baby panda – which was born here in Japan – is still considered the property of China and has to be returned,” he said.

Tsuyoshi Shirawa, who operates Shizuoka-based Rep Japan to import and trade zoo animals, said pandas are the one creature that every zoo in Japan wants – but he admits they are “impossible” to obtain without the consent of Beijing.

“It is impossible to buy a panda because they are all owned by China, which charges what they term a ‘conservation fee’ of around US$1 million (S$1.3 million) a year,” he said.

“But the business is entirely political. This is an animal that is very popular, is rare and controlled by one country, so it is used by Beijing to buy political favours. And any country that does not want to follow those rules simply has no chance of getting a panda.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.