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Delays Throw a Monkey Wrench Into Loan to Zoo

A 2002 deal to bring a special exhibit to L.A. from China is held up by import rules and an elephant controversy.

September 26, 2006|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

Once upon a time, children in China believed there was a golden monkey with magical powers that lived in the forest, fighting evil, and living off slow-growing lichen. Its fur was the color of gold, while its face was a striking blue.

And once there was a mayor of a big city who, too, believed in the magical properties of the golden monkeys.

They would leave their faraway homeland and fly to the mayor's town, where they would dazzle all visitors and dispel the inhabitants' disappointment at not getting big fluffy pandas to reside in their zoo. Man and monkey would live happily ever after. (Or at least for the 10-year term of the visit.)

But it hasn't worked out that way.

Nearly four years ago, during an Asia trade mission, then-Mayor James K. Hahn brokered a deal with the Chinese government to bring three golden monkeys to the Los Angeles Zoo. Observers pouted, saying that they were just a consolation prize after an unsuccessful bid for giant pandas, but Hahn and animal experts enthused about the monkeys.

"They are gorgeous animals," said John Lewis, the zoo's director. "I even think golden monkeys are better than pandas."

Virtually no one in Los Angeles can debate Lewis on that point, because no one has seen them. The golden monkeys have yet to arrive.

Whatever special powers the fabled monkeys possess in Chinese folklore, they are no match for international panda politics, a local elephant controversy and the always delicate state of U.S.-China negotiations -- all of which have contributed to some degree to the delay of the monkeys' exit permit from China.

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Surprisingly, money plays only a tangential part in this saga.

China usually doesn't give away its exotic animals; it puts them on loan. The L.A. Zoo would pay $100,000 a year for 10 years for the monkeys -- a bargain compared with the $1-million-plus annual fee a zoo must pay to get pandas. The Los Angeles City Council approved the funds for the zoo, a city agency, in March 2003. Payments would begin when the monkeys arrived.

But that was just the beginning of the process. Since this species of golden monkey -- the Sichuan snub-nosed langur -- is considered endangered, it is afforded the same protection as pandas are and its importation is governed by the federal Endangered Species Act. For that reason, the zoo had to apply for an import license from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces the act.

Not only must the import not be detrimental to the species, the loan fees cannot go to commercial ventures.

"We need to know that that money is going back for conservation of that species involved," said Teiko Saito, acting assistant director for international affairs of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Chinese Wildlife Conservation Assn., which offered the monkeys, proposed an acceptable conservation project which, according to Lewis, the L.A. Zoo approved and sent on to Fish and Wildlife. Saito confirmed that the agency issued a permit for the import in 2004 and renewed it earlier this year.

But the monkeys still have not budged from their wildlife park in China. And that, says David Towne, the Seattle-based zoo consultant who helped Hahn broker the 2002 deal, is because the Chinese chafe at the demands placed on them in general by all the exotic animal loans.

In June, when Towne brought up the subject of the golden monkeys with officials in China, they were a bit annoyed, he said.

"They felt the effort involved in the golden monkey loan may not be worth the money they would get," said Towne, who also serves as head of the U.S.-based Giant Panda Conservation Foundation, which coordinates the efforts of U.S. zoos that want pandas.

"The thing that makes it difficult is that China has constantly bridled at the fact that they give us pandas, we give them money; what gives us the right to tell them how to spend the money," Towne said.

Chen Runsheng, secretary-general of the China Wildlife Conservation Assn. in China, said in an interview last week that the Americans do expect too much. "Golden monkeys and pandas are different," said Chen through an interpreter. "The rent for pandas is $1 million dollars annually, while for golden monkeys it's only $100,000. America has very tight control on issues of international cooperation, like how and where the money is used. The Chinese side believes the control shouldn't be that tight."

But Chen adds that it's the zoo that has dropped the ball on the monkeys.

"The L.A Zoo initiated this project first," Chen said. "But later it just stopped and nothing further was mentioned. We didn't hear anything from America again. We already signed the agreement. It's absolutely their fault."

Lewis begs to differ: "We have been in touch with them both directly and indirectly, through Dave Towne and through Chinese locals." But, he conceded, "we haven't been pushing on it because we weren't ready with the exhibit."

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