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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Attack of the Pandas

Will Taiwan's wary, pro-independence government succumb to a pair of China's most adorable ambassadors? History says yes.

March 21, 2006|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

Then again, China has lots of practice, having scored the diplomatic equivalent of a grand slam with its gift of a panda pair to the United States after Nixon's visit.

"It was a very deft move by the Chinese leadership," said Chas Freeman, Nixon's interpreter on the trip.

In return, the Americans sent back a pair of musk oxen. "We took them to the cleaners on that trade," Freeman said.

About 20,000 people visited Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing on their first day at Washington's National Zoo that April, part of the 1.1 million visitors the first year. Nixon apparently never bothered. "He had a disdain for ceremony," Freeman said.

As "panda-monium" raged, London decided it too wanted a pair. In 1974, it sent a delegation to Beijing headed by Prime Minister Edward Heath, but the timing never seemed right to broach the subject. Finally, near the end of the visit, Heath got up his nerve, realizing it was now or never.

"The Chinese cracked up," said Michael Brambell, retired mammal curator at the London Zoo. "They told him: 'We wondered when you'd get around to asking.' "

Brambell got a scare a few weeks later when picking up Chia-Chia and Ching-Ching. Some cog in the Communist hierarchy had left them sitting on the boiling tarmac for hours, and they were hyperventilating. They recovered after being rushed onto the air-conditioned plane.

Between 1958 and 1982, Beijing sent 23 pandas to nine countries. But soon international friendship alone wasn't enough to seal a deal. Increasingly, cash was king. With zoos tripping over themselves for the furry prizes, China embarked on an increasingly controversial multiyear "rent-a-panda" program.

"In the 1980s, things became much more commercially oriented," said David L. Towne, a consultant to the Los Angeles Zoo and head of the Giant Panda Conservation Foundation.

The lobbying frenzy, along with concerns over poachers, the pandas' declining habitat and fears by animal rights groups that the endangered species would be loved out of existence, led in the early 1990s to a five-year U.S. ban on panda imports.

Only after safeguards were added was the ban lifted, with the San Diego Zoo an early beneficiary. A stipulation that fees be used for conservation in China was part of the deal.

Pandas are notoriously poor breeders, with a baby panda the ultimate zookeeper prize. On the flight from Beijing to Heathrow in 1974, Brambell recalls spending much of the time shining a flashlight on the animals' private parts to establish that the two were actually male and female. "We wanted to make sure we really had the goods," he said.

The species has earned the nickname "living fossils" for having an inefficient reproductive system, with captive males showing little interest in sex, and females in heat only a few days a year. Foreign scientists working with the Chinese have made advances in artificial insemination, while Chinese keepers have taken a different tack: panda "porn" videos to get them in the mood. "We never tried that," Brambell said. "We were never that enterprising."

State Forestry Administration figures released last year show the number of pandas in the wild in China has risen by more than 40% to 1,590 from 1,110 in the 1980s. About 160 are in captive breeding programs worldwide.

In the meantime, the reserve continues to wait for an answer from Taipei.

"It's a fight over one-China pandas or two-China pandas," said Jeffrey Bader, a former diplomat who worked on China issues during the 1970s and early 1980s days of panda diplomacy. "And no one is asking the pandas."

Yin Lijin of The Times' Beijing Bureau and special correspondent Tsai Ting-I in Taipei contributed to this report.

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