Happy Chinese New Year! Happy Year of the Dragon! In honor of this most Chinese of celebrations, I thought I would talk about pandas today. France like Japan is now home to two giant pandas! Yuan Zi, alias “chubby”, and Huan Huan, or “happy,” arrived in France a little over a week ago and are getting used to life at the ZooParc de Beauval, near the Loire river. The 3-year old male and female pandas arrived last weekend on a 10-year loan from China. France is thus the latest recipient of China’s panda diplomacy. The laws of panda supply and demand being in China’s favor (there are only about 1,600 pandas in the wild today and another 300 or so in zoos), China can not only dictate terms but make the loan of a pair of pandas into a prized honor. Loaning pandas is one of China’s favorite diplomatic gestures–the last time France received pandas, they came as a gift to Georges Pompidou as part of his official visit to China. The last few years have seen Sino-French ties go through a series of ups and downs. I would even say they have gone through more downs than ups–pro-Tibet activists disrupted the Paris leg of the Beijing Olympics torch run, China reacted poorly to France’s decision to give honorary citizenship to the Dalai Lama, China’s human rights record is well-known, counterfeit goods remain a concern and I could go on. Relations have improved though, the pandas presence is proof of that.
Times have changed since Pompidou, and, if you can believe the newspapers, it took over 5 years of negotiations for Beauval zoo to get the pandas. While the French zoo has thus far refused to say what it has “paid” for the pandas presence, you can get an idea by looking at Edinburg Zoo. The Scottish zoo has been very open and transparent about the cost of its two pandas, Yang Guang et Tiantian, which arrived in December. Edinburg Zoo’s 10-year panda loan comes to the modic price of 750,000 euros a year. Feeding the two pandas is expected to cost another 80,000 euros per year. Any offspring, a goal of the loan, must be returned to China and also cost the zoo an additional bonus donation to China. Technically, all the money China earns by loaning pandas must be spent on panda conservation efforts in China. While it hasn’t announced the cost of the pandas, Beauval has said that it expects the pandas to draw an additional 100,000 people per year to the zoo. The zoo is giving the pandas time to get used to their new home before they go on public display in mid-February. According to its website, Beauval is among the 15 most beautiful zoos in the world and committed to breeding endangered animals and other conservation efforts. A day trip to Beauval costs 24€ for children 11+ and adults and 18€ for children 3-10 years old. I hope the zoo manages to pull in enough visitors to make the pandas economically and not just politically worthwhile. French President Nicholas Sarkozy is supposed to come to the pandas grand opening celebration on February 11th; here’s hoping for Beauval Zoo that there’s thousands more to follow in his footsteps over the next ten years! Happy Year of the French pandas to you!