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.

Longleat criticised for importing koalas for money-making.

Visitors to animal attractions should not be fooled by all the conservation hype.

Longleat Safari Park came under intense criticism in October 2018 by the Born Free Foundation for importing five southern Koala bears half-way round the world from eastern Australia to stock their new “Koala Creek” attraction. Although Longleat strongly refuted the suggestion that the attraction was a “money-making” venture and insisted it was a vital conservation and research project it is strange that two wombats were also obtained along with some Pottoroos to form the new Koala Creek located next to the Giant Otters and Crocodiles. Whether scientific or money making it did wonders in increasing footfall and publicity for the park. 

One has already died unnecessarily in the name of conservation.

There was so much wrong with this enterprise including the timing of its opening on the 29th. March just as the school Easter holidays were approaching which cannot have been a coincidence. Longleat were also quick to point out and promote the attraction as the only place in the UK to see Koalas.  It is so similar to the Chinese hiring out Giant pandas for zoos to increase their income.

One female Koala tragically died  soon after arrival from kidney failure.  Luckily it wasn’t Dennis the only male of the five otherwise the ‘breeding programme’ would have been a non-starter. Apparently Dennis was found to be too young to breed anyway so this necessitated another “rare” male 12 year old Koala named Burke, a proven breeder, travelling 10,000 miles from a zoo in Japan. So far it would appear that neither Dennis or Burke are making much headway in saving the world’s koala species. 

There is also the question of how “vulnerable” Koala numbers are, as Australian authorities have in the past allegedly killed at least 700 koalas in euthanasia culls in coastal bushland areas near Melbourne because of overpopulation and “for their own good”. Koala  populations are “strong” in southern Australia according to many sources and there are dozens of sanctuaries, zoos, wildlife parks and attractions throughout Australia that have them in captivity. 

The Koalas have not been but from a pseudo wildlife park called Cleland Park which is one of the few in Australia where you can manhandle and cuddle these shy, sedate and easily stressed animals for an extra fee to have your photograph taken. This behaviour is finally being phased out by most other similar enterprises.

male tiger in zoo

Lions and Tigers killed at Longleat.

It is not the first time that Longleat has come under scrutiny as in 2014 The Mail on Sunday newspaper alleged that they had a lion breeding programme to ensure there are always cubs on show and that they had killed adults and cubs in the past. In February 2019 a female tiger named Amur was killed in a fight with two other tigers and two other female tigers died an early death, one from cancer and the other from a heart attack brought on by a routine medical operation. These were part of another breeding programme which produced two cubs in 2019, but obviously not doing much to increase the endangered tiger population with all the deaths.

Zoo conservation programmes are often not what they seem and the animals often suffer the consequences of the research. Zoos like to hide behind their conservation and educational credentials rather than admit that they are predominately part of the entertainment industry and for this reason it is not surprising that some people may approach such projects cynically and view them unethical. I hope that everyone who visits such attractions should not be fooled by all the conservation hype and appreciate what animals have gone through to provide a day’s entertainment.