After long negotiations, the arrival of a pair of pandas at the Beauval Zoo in 2012 gave the Loir-et-Cher park a European dimension. Expensive investment… and profitable?
What image would we have of pandas if one of them kicked the President of the Republic? The then head of state in the 1970s, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, wanted to “show the President’s courage” by entering a cage with Yen Yen, one of the first two pandas to arrive at the Zoo Vincennes. “In the second, a panda jumped on me. Luckily there was a guard who caught the panda and I escaped,” he said in 2013.
Phew, the republic is safe, and the panda remains in the imagination as a serene fur ball adored by the crowd. Proof: After Yen Yen’s death in 2000, France no longer had pandas to show to the public.
Some repairs were made in 2012, when the Beauval Zoo in Loir-et-Cher triumphantly welcomed Yuan Zi and Juan Huang. The first gave birth to a child in 2018, and now twins, born this Sunday evening. None of these animals belong to the zoo or France. The adults are leased to China for ten years, while the young are destined to return to a Chinese nature reserve, where the animal has an almost sacred aura.
From 40,000 to 1.6 million visitors
In addition to preserving the species, the panda is a well-known diplomatic weapon, used by Maoist China in particular to soften relations with cold countries. The Washington Zoo’s pandas arrived in the United States in 1972, just after Richard Nixon’s historic visit to communist China.
As the panda population dwindles as honorary gifts are received, China has switched to a ten-year credit system. In fact, the panda is expensive. Apart from China, only about twenty countries have the opportunity to welcome these plantigrades.
For Bauval, this is a dedication. “In 40 years, we have gone from 40,000 visitors to 1.6 million visitors. From 3 employees to 900,” welcomed BFM Business boss Rodolphe Delors at the beginning of 2020. The zoo, set up by his mother in 1980 as a modest ornithological park, has grown and has always welcomed more and more animals.
Pandas are a different story. Opacity usually reigns in contracts with Beijing. Apart from the political negotiations started in 2006, this is a significant investment for the zoo, which is closely monitored by the China Zoological Gardens Association, in particular for cage layout. The investment is in the millions of euros, not counting the marketing campaigns to attract the crowd.
As for the “rent” of pandas, it costs about 800,000 euros per year. To this should be added the cost of food in the tens of thousands of euros per year. Although carnivorous, the panda mainly feeds on bamboo, which is poor in nutrients. Therefore, the animal must eat … a lot. 60,000 euros of bamboo per year. For the zoo, the panda is the most expensive animal to keep.
Crazy amounts that some zoos can hardly digest. In Australia, the Adelaide Zoo has gone into debt to keep its pandas, while some US zoos have long been sticking out their tongues due to financial demands and lack of profitability. Edinburgh Zoo is even talking about sending pandas back to China next year after a difficult financial year related to the Covid-19 crisis.
However, in Beauval, a pair of pandas was the engine of turnover, which continued to grow and reached 64 million euros a year before the crisis.
“For us it is not a matter of profitability, nevertheless Rodolphe Delors slipped into France 2 in 2018. Since the arrival of the pandas, we have moved forward and doubled the size of the park, so I can’t tell you if it’s just because of the pandas, but they contributed to it.”
And if the panda is synonymous with wealth, the task is primarily to maintain the interest of the public. For this, there is nothing better than babies, especially since the animal is known to have the same peaceful libido as he does. New birth was also allowed through insemination. A small biological miracle that usually entails new royalties for zoos in China…
For the Beauval Animal Park, pandas remain a staple of its success, and the challenge now is to keep the two owners a little longer to return to China next year. The Washington Zoological Park received a three-year extension last year at a $500,000 annual rent. For his part, Emmanuel Macron has already discussed this topic with his Chinese counterpart from Beauval Park.
Because if the costs are huge, leaving your pandas will inevitably damage the image of the park. The only consolation is that returning to the house allows you to go free to cheat your contingent. As of 2016, the panda is no longer considered an “endangered” species, but is considered “vulnerable”.