Does the panda’s diplomacy really benefit her defense?

For over sixty years, China has given and loaned many pandas to foreign countries. This endangered animal has become an instrument of the country’s diplomatic relations.

By Sophie Hank

In April 2019, the Moscow Zoo received couple of pandas from China. In 1957, Russia became the first country to receive a panda as a gift from the People’s Republic of China.

Why has the panda, an endangered species, been so popular for sixty-two years? And what effect does this practice have on its preservation? Almost unknown a century ago, the panda has now become a tool for China to project its soft power abroada more pleasing face of its foreign policy.

First meeting

The charming and clumsy panda is now universally recognized: the emblem of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the hero of the Kung Fu Panda cartoon, the real stars of zoos, the panda is now familiar to us. But in the 19th century, the panda was more of a scientific curiosity than a zoo star.

We used the Natural History Museum’s installation of two historical panda specimens to meet Cecile Callou, the museum’s curator, who told us a little more about the history of the panda. As part of a tour of China featuring ten species of Chinese plants and animals at the Jardin des Plantes, these pandas are visible to the public along with 250 other species in the hall of extinct and endangered species.

It was not until the late 19th century that the West discovered the panda, thanks to the work of a Lazarist missionary who first described it during a trip to China in 1869. Father David arrived in China as an evangelist, but also as a zoologist and naturalist on behalf of the Museum.

If this is the first time he describes a panda scientifically, this species has long been known to the local population reminds us of Cecile Kallou, describing the travels of the missionary: it was local hunters who brought the bear cub and the female, which will be used for the first description of this new species, to Father David during the expedition to Sichuan. Father David hurries to send their skins to the museum, which will naturalize them.

Recently, they were exhibited in the hall of endangered and endangered species: in perfect condition, they testify to the first meeting of an alien with a panda. However, the latter was of much less interest to the scientific community at the time than other specimens observed by Father David, such as Elaphurus davidianus, to which he gave his name.

However, the panda gradually established itself as a separate animal, first as a biological curiosity, then as a real national treasure of China and the face of foreign zoos that welcome it. Father David’s bears are now much more than plush curiosities: the People’s Republic of China has made them powerful emissaries, sending them to the four corners of the world.

Pandas at the National Museum of Natural History MNHN/JC Domenech

panda diplomat

These peaceful inhabitants of zoos around the world are indeed the protagonists of what is commonly called “panda diplomacy”. This Chinese diplomatic strategy involves leasing pandas to foreign countries for a period of ten to fifteen years in exchange for large sums of money (for example, France rents out its pandas for 750,000 euros a year).

These loans should symbolize a good understanding between the two peoples and are always an important event. In early June, Vladimir Putin, together with Xi Jinping, opens the panda house of the Moscow Zoo, where a couple of pandas arrived at the end of April. He considers this gesture sign of special respect for Russia “.

The latter is just the latest country to receive a pair of pandas. China has been practicing panda diplomacy since the 1950s, and the gradual expansion of its diplomatic relations over the following decades has been marked by panda donations. So, in 1972, a pair of pandas was offered to the United States as a sign of warming relations between the two countries.

Although today the terms of lending have changed from gift to short-term and long-term leases, the principle of panda diplomacy remains much the same. Panda presents the friendly face of China to the world and promotes diplomatic rapprochement and, more recently, commercial partnerships.

An Oxford University study published in 2013 in the journal Environmental Practice highlights the overlap between the arrival of pandas and the signing of major commercial contracts between China and Canada, France, Scotland and even the US. as free trade agreements with neighboring Asian countries.

The predominance of political considerations in leasing these cubs is confirmed if we look a little closer at the controversy caused by the panda’s diplomacy. In 2005, China gave Taiwan a pair of pandas. This donation caused distrust among many Taiwanese, who saw the donation as a threat to the sovereignty of the island. In 2010, China also demanded the repatriation of pandas from the Washington Zoo following a meeting between Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama.

In my work Panda Nation: Creating and Preserving a Modern Icon of China published in 2018, E. Elena Songster, a researcher at St. Mary’s College of California, describes the panda as real ” instrument of diplomacy and the symbol of the People’s Republic of China.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping at the welcome ceremony for panda couple Zhu Yi and Ding Ding at the Moscow Zoo, June 5, 2019.
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping at the welcome ceremony for panda couple Zhu Yi and Ding Ding at the Moscow Zoo, June 5, 2019. ALEXANDER WILF / SPUTNIK / AFP

Captivity and reintroduction

China has been striving to improve its environmental image for years. If he uses panda diplomacy to support his interests, then the latter nevertheless has a positive effect on the level of protection of this species.

China has made sincere efforts to conserve the species, encouraged by the panda’s popularity overseas. The money raised from renting pandas overseas is for conservation, but it’s not clear how it’s spent.

With the establishment of new nature reserves, reforestation programs and anti-poaching efforts, China’s efforts since the 1980s to protect its biodiversity have shown to be effective. In 2016, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) upgraded the panda’s status from “Endangered” to “Vulnerable”. But these efforts have limits, yet the panda’s natural habitat remains under threat.

Cecile Callou explains to us that the panda ” not very fond of human intimacy “, as well as ” in terms of environment, he needs ancient forests ”, and lots of bamboo, its main food source. However, despite efforts to reforestate The panda’s natural habitat is generally limited due to the slow process of reforestation, urbanization, human activities and fragmentation of its habitats.

On the other hand, these threats to the habitat are accompanied by difficulties in reintroducing the panda into the wild. Indeed, its conservation is largely due to birth and reproduction in captivity, which has allowed for an increase in the panda population. Nevertheless, this leads to a certain dependence of the animal in relation to humans, which complicates reintroduction.

According to Cecile Callu, he ” it is a pity to have animals that are exclusively or very mainly in controlled areas “So if protection centers continue to encourage births, little pandas will not be immediately reintroduced. On the other hand, they can be sent to overseas zoos as part of panda diplomacy, or satisfy tourists who come to spend the day with cubs at protection centers.

We interviewed the president of the Code Animal Association, which specializes in the fight against captivity of wild animals, who confirms that it would be necessary ” protection priority in place instead of raising pandas who will fight for survival on their own. But the degradation of their natural habitat makes this difficult.


Our conversation with Alexandra Morette also raised questions about panda diplomacy that are less frequently discussed. According to him, this practice turn a panda into an object, into a rental item “. She protests against such use, pointing out that in 2019 there are other ways to establish diplomatic relations other than renting animals, even if it is a symbolic view of China. “.

While the panda’s popularity comes as a surprise to many, Alexandra Morette criticizes zoos that ” use its cute potential to increase sales “showing to the public” what he wants to see or thinks he wants to see and maintaining the demand for pandas in captivity rather than promoting conservation in the wild.


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