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Attractions Management Handbook - Panda Power


Panda Power

Giant panda leasing is now big business around the world, but zoos looking to do deals with China must be prepared for a huge investment of both time and money. Jak Phillips examines the bare necessities of the practice

Jak Phillips
A £70,000 bill for specially-grown bamboo
Two years after their arrival at Edinburgh Zoo, interest remains high
Yang Guang and Tian Tian have raised the profile of Edinburgh Zoo Photo: © rob mcdougall

After five years of negotiations between Beijing and Britain, a specially chartered plane finally touched down at Edinburgh airport. Anticipation was high, history was in the making.

Having tracked the historic flight with 24-hour rolling news coverage, the world’s media scrambled to snatch a glimpse of the two VIPs from China. They emerged, flanked by a dedicated team of aides, while high-ranking politicians waited in the wings to greet them. But it wasn’t the Chinese Premier disembarking from the aircraft. It was a pair of giant pandas.

The event offers a telling insight into the peculiar practice of panda leasing. The pandas, Tian Tian and Yang Guang, were en route to Edinburgh Zoo to become the UK’s first resident pandas in 17 years. Aside from five years of cajoling between the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS – the charity that owns Edinburgh Zoo) and the Chinese Wildlife Conservation Association, the deal to lease the pandas involved political and diplomatic negotiations at the very highest level.

Costs and conservation
In addition to the extra staff they require, the pandas, which remain the property of China, cost US$1m (£582,620, E736,141) per annum over the 10-year lease period. And that’s before the estimated £70,000 (E88,445, US$120,146) cost to the zoo each year of the pandas’ 18,000kg of specially-grown bamboo. Also, any cubs produced by the pair would be returned to China after two years. So why did the zoo go to all that trouble?
Apart from it being something of a coup, the gains, according to the RZSS, were seen as both conservational and financial.

The zoo’s Iain Valentine, says: “RZSS sought to include giant pandas as part of their collection for a variety of reasons. Pandas are seriously endangered and we believe Scotland’s expertise in animal nutrition, genetics, embryology, immunology and veterinary medicine could add to the overarching conservation programme. They are also a flagship species to highlight other conservation work and the commercial benefits were obviously part of the picture too. Visitor numbers spiked by 50 per cent in the first year of the pandas’ residency, covering the costs of the lease fee.”

Media attention, public affection
Traditionally, zoos that lease pandas expect to see a visitor drop-off by the end of the second year when the initial excitement has died down. Valentine says that Edinburgh Zoo avoided this, with its pandas receiving their one millionth visit in December 2013, two years after they first arrived. “Our giant panda business model has always been extremely conservative. To date we’ve not seen any tail off in interest and we’ve bucked the trend for a panda zoo in year two.

“Realistically there’ll be a reduction in visitor levels at some point, however no zoo that has ever had giant pandas in recent years has ever returned them – all have extended their agreements.”

Of course, the biggest boon for generating visits and publicity is the birth of a panda cub. At 1/900th of their mother’s size, panda cubs appeal to visitors and newspaper editors alike, driving up gate receipts and earning huge publicity.

In the absence of nature’s miracles, zoos have had to explore innovative methods to maintain the panda buzz. Toronto Zoo became the world’s latest recipient of cubs when it welcomed Er Shun and Da Mao in March 2013 and the centre has sought to heighten public interaction with the cuddly creatures by creating its Giant Panda Experience exhibit.

Panda interpretation
The centre offers conservation and educational features designed for adults and children, using graphics and model displays, plus interactive features, multi-media games and audio-visual presentations.

Particularly popular with visitors is the food display, showing the amount of bamboo each panda eats in a day and also “panda poop” to illustrate the output of the bamboo. “Our Panda Interpretive Centre is one of the largest panda educational facilities in the world,” says Toronto Zoo’s chief operating officer Robin Hale.

“It employs many state-of-the-art interactive features to convey the importance of habitat preservation for the survival of many threatened and endangered wild species, not just the giant panda.”

This approach appears to have paid off, with attendance figures showing a year-on-year increase of 31 per cent for the five months after the exhibit opened.

So far, it seems, the pandas are earning their keep, just as well when you consider their bamboo costs US$200,000 (£116,524, E147,228) a year.

It’s not just about the money though. Hale adds: “We’ve always put environmental protection awareness at the heart of our mission and giant pandas are global ambassadors for species survival and protection. A key objective of the 21st century is to show people the connection between wildlife survival and protection and sustainable human development.”

Beijing benefits
The practice of obtaining pandas from China is not new. Originating in the 1950s under Chairman Mao, the gifting of pandas – ‘panda diplomacy’ – to foreign nations proved so popular that China gave 23 pandas to nine different countries between 1958 and 1982.

Since the mid-1980s though, China has stopped giving away pandas, instead leasing them for around US$1m (£582,620, E736,141) per year over what is typically a decade-long contract. However, despite the price hike, the western public’s love of pandas remains undiminished.

Ever since the WWF chose the panda as its logo in 1961, the bear has come to represent one of the most treasured and mysterious creatures of nature, while modern movies such as Kung Fu Panda have attracted a whole new generation of fans.

Weighing up costs
However, Dave Towne, president of the Giant Panda Conservation Foundation for North America, insists leasing a panda is more a labour of love than a calculated business decision. “I try to discourage institutions from going after pandas, unless they have a really strong commitment and a large cheque book,” he says, pointing out that zoos face additional costs for feeding, extra staff and entertaining Chinese visitors, as well as having to fund further research and projects. “It’s a long commitment that will require US$15-30m (£8.8-17.5m, E11.1-22.2m).”

All the money paid to China for the pandas is reinvested in conservation projects across the country’s north where the bears primarily reside. China appears to see other benefits however, with a 2013 research paper by a team from Oxford suggesting that since 2008, panda loans have come about at the same time the country has been signing trade deals for valuable resources and technology.

The study claimed that panda loans made to Canada, France and Australia coincided with trade deals for uranium, while the Edinburgh panda exchange was followed by around £2.6bn (E3.3bn, US$4.4bn) worth of contracts with Scotland for the supply of salmon, renewable energy technology and Land Rovers.

Panda protection
Despite attracting criticism from wildlfe groups who say panda diplomacy is cruel and unnecessary, the benefits for China’s wild and captive panda populations appear to be evident. Whether panda leasing is seen as a costly loss-leader, an investment or a huge revenue generator, the success of conservation efforts and huge interest in the creatures, means that successful panda diplomacy is likely to continue well into the future.

- Giant Pandas have a distinctive black and white coat, with black eye patches and ears. Adults can grow to over 1.5m long and weigh up to 150kg
- Pandas often have twins. In the wild, the mother will choose one cub to raise and leave the other to die. In captivity, the discarded cub is raised by zoo staff
- Panda cubs grow up to 10 times their birth weight in the first five to six weeks
- Following ancient Chinese tradition, giant panda cubs are not to be named until they have been alive for 100 days
- A giant panda can eat up to 38kg of bamboo a day and will only select the best, rejecting as much as 85 per cent of it. This can take up to 16 hours to eat each day
- The giant panda’s teeth are approximately seven times bigger than a human’s, which helps the animal chew and eat its mountains of bamboo


The high-profile nature of modern panda leasing has turned the practice into big business – best exemplified by the fact that transporter FedEx now offers a panda express service to fly bears around the world.

Having flown polar bears, white tigers, elephants, a rhinoceros, lions, gorillas and a 13ft (4m) tiger shark, FedEx set up its panda express in 2000 and has so far carried 12 pandas across the globe.

The nine-hour flight to Edinburgh in 2011 required 21 months of co-ordination between three teams of specialists in three countries. With custom-made Plexiglas enclosures, a team of four experts on board plus copious amounts of bamboo and mineral water, the pandas received VIP care during the 5,000-mile flight from Chengdu. While FedEx inevitably benefits from the exposure of these major media events, Trevor Hoyle, MD of UK & Ireland ground operations, points out: “FedEx Express doesn’t charge for transporting the pandas. We feel honoured to be called upon to ensure safe passage, thus indirectly helping with the efforts to save the endangered species.”


Photo: © Shutterstock/ILYA AKINSHIN

FedEx has flown polar bears and rhinos across the globe

Jak Phillips is the news editor of Leisure Media publication Leisure Opportunities.

From Attractions Management Issue 1 2014
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Originally published in Attractions Handbook 2014 issue 1

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