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Hahn Hopes to Bag a Pair of Pandas on Far East Trip

November 19, 2002|Beth Shuster | Times Staff Writer

As Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn travels through Asia this week, his stated goals are to boost tourism and drum up business for the airport and harbor. But the big prize he seeks is a coveted set of Chinese souvenirs: a pair of giant pandas.

That's no easy task. Getting a pair of the rare creatures -- once considered more akin to big raccoons than little bears but now generally credited with legitimate membership in the bear family -- will require smart politics and substantial investment.

The Chinese government rations out its panda loans, carefully picking which U.S. cities and zoos deserve a chance to display and breed the lumbering animals, which can weigh as much as 250 pounds in the wild.

Memphis, Tenn., Las Vegas and Oakland are among the cities in the hunt. The winners will get to borrow a pair of the gentle animals, which zoo-goers flock to see. For the losers, panda pens will go empty, and the Chinese government has a disappointing consolation prize: a golden monkey.

Panda lobbying is long, expensive and political. It can take millions of dollars, substantial political capital and years of effort. Indeed, Hahn could be out of office before the city learns if it will ever receive the pandas. He is undeterred.

"It's a huge feather in a city's cap if they can get a panda," the mayor said in an interview before he took off for Seoul last weekend. "It's a very good investment for the entire zoo to have pandas. They are a marquee exhibit. It would be huge."

Enchanted by the possibility that Los Angeles might get its own pandas, city officials traveling this week with Hahn are navigating diplomatic niceties as they gently press their case. Among other things, Hahn is expected to argue that Los Angeles' status as a gateway city to Asia and its large Chinese population would make it a suitable home for the animals.

David Towne, a consultant to the Los Angeles Zoo and the head of the Giant Panda Conservation Foundation, is going to Beijing to help Hahn land pandas. A big part of his message is patience and attention to detail.

"I've tried to advise the folks here: Do not put the Chinese on the spot by announcing that you're getting the pandas," Towne said in an interview. "It works against you. It embarrasses you and it puts pressure on them. You have to develop rapport ... and relationships. There's nothing like long-term relationships."

Only three zoos in the United States have pandas: the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., which has two; Zoo Atlanta, which has a pair; and the San Diego Zoo, which has two adults and a younger animal that soon will be returned to China. China requires that all pandas lent out to zoos abroad be returned to China, usually within 10 years. Any babies born to their pandas must be returned to China by age 3.

The mayor will find himself in line with others seeking pandas. The Memphis Zoo, for example, already has received word that its request for pandas has been approved in principle by the Chinese Assn. of Zoological Gardens. The Mandalay Bay Resort on the Las Vegas Strip also has been lobbying and the city of Oakland has expressed interest.

Bagging pandas typically is reserved for wealthy or politically connected exhibitors. And, as with so many things, powerful friends don't hurt.

The Memphis Zoo's effort, for example, was launched in 1999 by former Tennessee Sen. James Sasser, then the U.S. ambassador to China. He began talks with the Chinese government that have continued, even though he is no longer there.

Zoo Atlanta also received well-placed help, in its case from former President Carter.

Los Angeles leaders recognize that Hahn does not exactly pack Carter's wallop. Because of that, experts in the field of panda acquisition say, Hahn would need to win support from California's congressional delegation and from Chinese officials in this country, as well.

Money also helps.

The cities that are successful in receiving pandas pledge millions to the Chinese government to help protect the dwindling wild populations of the animals. There are about 1,000 left in the wild in China and several hundred in captivity. The goal for U.S. zoos is to produce offspring.

For Hahn to be successful in scoring the pandas, he would have to commit tens of millions of dollars to the effort, according to Towne, who has advised other cities as well.

The Griffith Park zoo would need to build a state-of-the-art panda exhibit, which would include a breeding area and could cost $10 million to $12 million; Los Angeles would have to pay China about $1.2 million per year for 10 years for the loan agreement; and the city probably would spend at least another $1.2 million building relationships with China, to help with its conservation programs, and in other costs. (That money could be raised from private sources or taxpayers.)

In Memphis, zoo officials built a $16-million, 3-acre panda exhibit well before they received any indication that they might actually get the animals.

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