Giant Pandas for rent. No way to treat a vulnerable species.

China has been renting out Giant Pandas for decades at astronomical fees. The sorry state of Ya Ya and Le Le are the result.

In December 2022, Memphis Zoo returned two sorry looking aged Giant Pandas named Ya Ya and Le Le back to their homeland to great fanfare and publicity. According to the zoo Ya Ya and Le Le helped “pioneer research and conservation projects” and drew visitors to Memphis to “get a small taste of the exquisite culture of the People’s Republic of China.”

But according to several animal advocacy groups the zoo had not been providing them with adequate food or enough outdoor freedom and cited instances of them pacing in circles. These groups had been criticising the zoo for months and have claimed victory now that they are being returned to China. But it would appear their return may have been more to do with their contract expiring. And what are they returning to?

Giant Pandas Ya Ya and Le Le
The poor old pandas being airlifted home

What future for Ya Ya and Le Le

At 24 years old and 22 years old respectively, having already exceeded the usual life expectancy by a considerable amount, Ya Ya and Le Le may not have much of a future. Not to mention the stress of being uprooted and flown round the world.

Few people realise that Giant Pandas are “rented” out by China. After the Second World war China was in the habit of “gifting” Giant pandas to other countries as part of trade agreements and diplomacy and zoos would clamour to house them. But in 1984 China changed this policy and began leasing them for high monthly fees. This changed again in 1991 to ten year leases costing up to US$1 million dollars per year with any cubs born having to be returned to China.

Some cynics have suggested that the Giant Panda is used as a “strategic asset for geopolitical reasons” because of the many trade agreements coinciding with their arrival in a country. The Pandas at Edinburgh coincided with a £2.6 billion worth of trade contracts for Britain. Zoos in France, Canada, Australia, Malaysia and Thailand also received Pandas following trade agreements.

Giant Pandas can assure a zoo’s financial future

They always come in pairs and the zoos pray they will breed as any cubs born boost their visitors and make them tens of millions in revenue. Any cub born costs the zoos a further “baby tax” until they are returned to China for breeding at 2 to 3 years old to support a healthy gene pool. In 2012, Toronto Zoo paid the going price of $1 million per annum for a pair and they produced two cubs which resulted in visitor numbers shooting up.

Edinburgh zoo rented a pair in 2011 named Yang Guang and Tian Tian with a contract costing £600,000 a year and they must be returned at the end of  this agreement. Not that the zoo was too worried about the investment as visitor numbers shot up by 4 million in the first two years at £16 plus a head. This contract was extended by two years because of Covid and they are due to go back in 2o23.

The crowds tend to have a habit of losing interest if a cub is not born to reinvigorate the attraction, but luckily a cub was born in 2017 to much excitement and media coverage and probably to the relief of the zoo’s accountants.

Giant panda cubs lined up in China breeding centre
Bred for what?

Captive numbers have increased, but for what?

The number of wild and captive Pandas has increased to over 2,000 and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have downgraded their endangered species label to “vulnerable”, but this does not mean that they are plentiful in the wild or will ever be, as there is very little room in suitable habitats for their release.

China (and of course the zoos they have been rented to) has bred and reared over 400 giant pandas and love to show off all the cute babies to world acclaim, but allegedly only 10 have ever been released into the wild since 1983 and only two of these have survived which appears to make a total nonsense of breeding them for release.

The bottom line seems to be that Giant Pandas have been reduced to tradeable merchandise.

Zoo animals need more protection from foolhardy humans.

The demise of Eko, an endangered tiger at Naples zoo, is another example of why zoo animals need more protection from foolhardy human visitors.

The death by shooting of Eko, an endangered tiger at Naples Zoo, is another example of why zoo animals need more protection from human visitors. The emphasis should be more on keeping the animals safe from us rather than the other way round.

Killing endangered captive animals through no fault of their own.

Captive zoo animals, particularly endangered species, must feel pretty positive about their lives and existence. They are more often than not pampered as valued inmates, usually part of a breeding programme and are celebrity attractions. Little do they realise though that in the blink of an eye they can be killed through no fault of their own.

Incidents over the last couple of decades have proved that it is an unfortunate fact that no zoo animal is completely safe at the hands of their humans keepers. Recently, (December 2021) yet another endangered animal had its life cut short by the idiotic behaviour of a human. This time it was a  critically endangered Malaysian tiger named Eko in the Naples Zoo in Florida. The unfortunate animal was shot and wounded, then sedated and finally died of his injuries all because of failures in health and safety, staff training and our desire to treat all animals as fluffy beings

The zoo was quick to issue a statement that Eko was much loved and died quickly from internal bleeding. They have set up a conservation fund for people to honour his death and asked the public to respect the feelings of the staff. I am sure Eko would have been pleased.

Zoo animals need more protection from foolhardy humans.

His early death was caused by a contract cleaner, who decided to put his arm through the bars to presumably stroke Eko who grabbed and mauled the arm of this unfamiliar human who was invading his space. The comment from the zoo was “This was a tragic encounter at our world-class zoo facility.” Hardly world class if they allow unsupervised outsiders to behave in such a manner.

Eko the tiger joins many others who over the years have suffered similar fates. It has become a regular habit for us to kill critically endangered captive animals through no fault of their own.

In September 2021 another tiger was shot and killed at the Delhi Zoo when a young man decided to jump down into its enclosure. And of course there is the case of the infamous shooting of 17 year old Harambe, the endangered lowland gorilla, who was shot by a Cincinnati zoo marksman when a child fell into his enclosure.

Harambe gorilla with child in moat Cincinnati zoo
Harambe was shot and killed even though he didn’t appear aggressive.

Human life will always take precedence over that of an animal.

Zoo officials were afraid for the child’s life and although the zoo was criticised for not doing more to save the child and Harambe, Mr Holloway, a zoo spokesman stated, screams from the crowd further agitated Harambe and it’s a horrible call to have to makebut human life will always take precedence over the animal.

Zoo animals are also regularly killed in the name of research and conservation, a practice called zoonasia and mainly kept hidden from the public. This was highlighted in the case of Marius the giraffe at Copenhagen Zoo who was killed because he didn’t fit the criteria for breeding his species. His death was covered worldwide in the press and social media.

There has been much discussion worldwide in the past of the dangers to the public visiting zoos particularly after each fatal incident. It has been estimated that there have been 256 injuries to the public and keepers over the last 26 years but only 33 deaths. This figure seems rather conservative. But it is more a question of how many animals the zoos are killing.

Time to keep captive endangered species away from the public.

The moral of the story for captive zoo animals is that their life is at the discretion of zoo scientists, veterinary surgeons, zoo directors and the actions of the public.  Although animals like Harambe and Eko may be sentient, are endangered and protected species, are disappearing at an alarming rate in the wild and maybe doing there bit for conserving their species by being part of a breeding program, none of this saves them or is of any consequence if they react to some stupidity on our part.

We will never save the life of an animal at the expense of a human, but we could accept they are wild animals and not retaliate when a human causes an incident. And if we are serious about saving species by zoo breeding, keep the animals away and out of view of the public so they can get on with the business of breeding undisturbed like humans prefer.

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