Plans to allow the San Diego Zoo and other American zoos to import giant pandas for display and research--hailed in January as a breakthrough in international efforts to save the endangered species--have become a victim of Chinese bureaucratic infighting and may die.
A key agency of the Beijing government has branded the agreement suggested by the U.S. government unacceptable because it dictates that millions of dollars China would receive from American zoos in exchange for pandas must be spent on preserving panda habitat.
"Only the Chinese people have the right to say what to do with the funds," Shen Jinquo, foreign affairs spokesman for the Ministry of Construction, said Thursday in Beijing.
A moratorium on importing pandas has been in place for nearly a decade as the Department of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service has debated how best to save the pandas from extinction.
In January, Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt came to San Diego to announce a proposed agreement to allow zoos to import pandas on long-term loans in exchange for payments to the Chinese government for panda preservation.
Shen said the panda importation agreement, and a separate but related agreement involving the loan of two pandas to the San Diego Zoo for 12 years, have not yet received the needed approval by the State Council, the highest governmental agency under Prime Minister Li Peng.
As a result, the arrival of Shi Shi and Bai Yun at the San Diego Zoo appears to have been indefinitely postponed and is in danger of being scuttled. Zoo officials had hoped the pair would arrive in the spring, in time for the peak tourist season.
"All we can do is wait," said San Diego Zoo spokeswoman Georgeanne Irvine. "We have everything ready to go, and as soon as the Chinese give the approval, we're ready."
A specially built million-dollar enclosure at the zoo sits empty. Plans for an advertising blitz are in abeyance. Ditto for a planned police escort from Los Angeles International Airport to the San Diego Zoo worthy of a presidential motorcade when the two furry VIPs arrive.
Since the first panda in the United States arrived in Chicago in 1937, the black-and-white animals have generated huge and enthusiastic crowds. When the San Diego Zoo temporarily housed two pandas in 1987 and 1988, a word was coined to describe the public delirium: pandamonium.
The only American zoo to have a panda is the National Zoo in Washington, but zoos from Seattle to Philadelphia are clamoring to submit panda import applications as soon as the U.S. and Chinese governments reach agreement.
Under the plan announced by Babbitt in January, pandas could only be imported for research and breeding. All profits made from increased attendance and souvenirs would have to be used for panda preservation, including staving off the destruction of the bamboo forests in China.
Although the Chinese have been very sensitive about any attempt by outsiders to influence their internal affairs, Babbitt and others thought negotiations with the China Wildlife Conservation Assn. had cleared the way for the Chinese to accept the idea of using panda money only for panda preservation and to allow for international auditing.
That optimism proved premature.
In a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service in late May, Ministry of Construction official Zheng Schuling wrote:
"Trust should be given to China that distribution of funds will be made appropriately according to the degree of practical and urgent needs. . . . The policy [being considered by Fish and Wildlife] should concentrate on the formulation of the U.S. policy instead of policies for the ministries of China. We believe the policy damages the interest of China and cannot be accepted."
The San Diego Zoo has pledged to pay $1 million a year for 12 years to the Chinese, with the proviso that the money be used for habitat preservation. More money will be paid if the pandas produce offspring. The agreement is meant as a model for other loans between China and American zoos.
Babbitt and wildlife specialists have worried that leaving the money unrestricted could encourage the Chinese to use pandas as a cash crop, thus hastening their extinction.
The Ministry of Construction is one of two competing Chinese bureaucracies that have dominion over pandas. The other, the Ministry of Forestry, has been supportive of the San Diego Zoo and the overall plan for American zoos.
The interagency wars in China over how best to save the panda have long been noted. In his book "The Last Panda," biologist George Schaller cited bureaucratic strife as among the factors crippling international efforts to save the panda from extinction.
In the interview Thursday, Shen also said there are concerns that one of the pandas slated for San Diego was caught in the wild. "We don't think that pandas that have been caught in the wild should be sent abroad," Shen said.
Sydney Butler, executive director of the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn., which worked with Fish and Wildlife officials to devise the proposed agreement, expressed confidence Thursday that the snag can be overcome.
"Our negotiations are ongoing," he said. "I'm confident that they will be successful."
Fewer than 1,000 pandas exist in the wild, and the Chinese, with international assistance, have established 13 reserves for pandas.
Shi Shi, a 13-year-old male, was born in the wild in Sichuan Province but taken to the Wolong Giant Panda Conservation Center for treatment after being mauled in a fight with another male. Bai Yun, a 3-year-old female, was born at the Wolong center.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is still reviewing the proposed panda plan unveiled in January, which would cover all future imports. Approval is not expected by Babbitt until fall, although that could be a moot point if the Chinese reject the plan.
In January, Babbitt said he was approving the San Diego Zoo's import application even while the overall plan to govern all American zoos was still pending because San Diego officials agreed to earmark all profits from increased attendance and souvenir sales for panda preservation.
Scientists at the San Diego Zoo hope to study Shi Shi and Bai Yun to unlock the secrets of why pandas have such difficulty reproducing. Even without the pandas, research into their reproductive woes has not stopped and zoo scientists regularly travel to Wolong and other reserves.
Perry reported from San Diego, Tempest from Beijing.