Giant pandas have been dubbed the rock stars of the animal world, drawing in the crowds and boosting a zoo's profits through increased gate receipts and souvenir sales.
They are also pawns in a game to bolster China’s international relations.
The Chinese government has complete control over which zoos receive these creatures, requiring the support of the government leader or member of the Royal Family of the recipient nation.
Edinburgh Zoo has tried to cover all its bases – Gordon Brown, Alex Salmond, David Miliband, even Princess Anne, were all involved in discussions with Chinese officials last year to support the loan of a pair of pandas to the zoo.
However, despite the PM’s support, in which he said he would be "personally delighted" to see the project succeed, the pandas are not on their way yet.
First off, obtaining pandas does not come cheap. Edinburgh Zoo refuses to comment on the financial arrangements with China of what Salmond called “primarily a commercial transaction”. Zoos in the USA have complained that the $1 million annual fee that they have to pay to China to display pandas is excessive and recently negotiated a 50 per cent reduction in price. But, of course, there is a significant financial upside.
With just three other zoos in the whole of Europe keeping pandas, and none having been displayed here since 1994, Edinburgh Zoo stands to cash in on what the UN Environment Programme called "probably the biggest crowd pullers on Earth".
In theory the money zoos pay to China goes towards panda conservation, yet the Scottish Director of WWF said: “There is little direct conservation benefit to bringing pandas to Edinburgh Zoo. There is also no guarantee that the considerable fees the zoo will be paying will feed directly into panda conservation back in China.”
There is already a great deal of work going on in China to protect and restore the pandas’ habitat, working with local communities to provide alternatives to damaging practices. This not only benefits pandas, but the hundreds of other species of fauna and flora living in these areas.
Keeping pandas in zoos is a dangerous distraction from real conservation. They are such notoriously poor breeders in captivity that the worldwide press is full of stories of artificial breeding methods – panda porn, viagra and the rest. Yet, in the wild, all adult pandas appear to be involved in breeding.
Displaying pandas in zoos has nothing to do with conservation. For zoos it's about publicity and income. For governments it is what one newspaper columnist called “part of a determined schmooze-the-Chinese offensive”.
Last month, pandas were sent to a zoo in Taiwan, two years after China first made the offer. Why the delay? Well, the then President saw the offer as a threat to its sovereignty, saying the animals were China's propaganda tools.
A change of government led to an increasing openness to the mainland China and two pandas named Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan (from the Chinese word ‘tuanyuan’, or ‘reunion’ in English) were sent to the zoo in Taipei amid much fanfare.
The Captive Animals' Protection Society (CAPS), is part of a coalition animal protection and conservation charities, has opposed the zoo’s plans from the start - because animals should not be used as political pawns, and pandas, like other animals in zoos, suffer in captivity, where unnatural environments and restrictions of normal behaviours cause physical and psychological problems.
UK officials are getting nervous about CAPS’ opposition to importing pandas. A recent Freedom of Information request to Boris Johnson’s office for copies of correspondence regarding possible plans by London Zoo to get its hands on the animals, was met with a refusal. The Mayor’s office claimed it was “not in the public interest” to disclose the information as it “would be likely to negatively impact UK relations with China” .
Trading wild animals as diplomatic gifts, indeed the whole concept of zoos, should be recognised as a throwback to a dark history, not a sign of conservation. We urge Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond to keep the pandas out of politics and not support zoos importing these animals.
Craig Redmond is the Campaigns Director for the Captive Animals' Protection Society, a charity campaigning against the use of animals in circuses as well as for an end to zoos and the exotic pet trade