- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2006

Meet Tai Shan — child star, chick magnet and one big, bamboo-eating chunk of the National Zoo’s budget.

Officials with the four zoos in the United States that house giant pandas — including Washington’s National Zoo — hope to renegotiate future loan agreements with China. They say the animals are such a drain on finances that it may make more sense to send them back to the communist country after contracts expire.

“They’re an expensive animal, absolutely, to have,” said John Gibbons, a spokesman for the National Zoo. Holding on to the pandas at such cost isn’t a sure thing, he said.

“That’s why we felt it important to iterate to the Chinese that the current conditions would not sustain future loan agreements,” Mr. Gibbons said.

Under current agreements, the zoos in Atlanta, Memphis, Washington and San Diego each pay more than $1 million a year for what the Chinese government says is a fund to protect endangered animals. In addition, China charges the zoos a one-time fee of about $600,000 each time a panda cub, such as Tai Shan, is born.

Though most of the money is supposed to go toward panda conservation in China, the U.S. zoo officials say the loan fees and money required for the animals’ upkeep here siphons funds from other species that also need protection.

“As far as I know, for a single species, this is more money than any zoo has spent,” said Dennis W. Kelly, chief executive of Zoo Atlanta, whose contract for two adult pandas expires in 2009. “For us, it’s a matter of resource allocation. For many zoos to sustain that commitment indefinitely, it would unbalance our global conservation efforts.”

The San Diego Zoo’s contract with China is the first to expire, in 2008. The National Zoo’s contract to house two adult pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, expires in 2010. Panda cub Tai Shan, now 7 months old, is slated to be sent to China when he is 2 years old.

Mr. Gibbons said the National Zoo has joined with the three other zoos to open an informal dialogue with China regarding a new contract. They hope a less-expensive agreement can be reached so that Mei Xiang and Tian Tian perhaps could make Washington their permanent home.

“We know we would not be able to undertake any future loan agreement for giant pandas under the current conditions,” Mr. Gibbons said. “That is not to say the National Zoo would not still be involved in our conservation and science efforts with the species. … We will continue our work with giant pandas, whether they are here in the future or not.”

As part of the federally funded Smithsonian Institution, the National Zoo does not charge admission, as the three other zoos do. It receives most of its funding from donations, corporate sponsorship and merchandise sales.

Care and feeding for the pandas is hard to put a price tag on, Mr. Gibbons said, but the animals require the attentions of six zoo staffers and several volunteers who monitor them for research. The zoo grows bamboo on site and receives donated bamboo from a volunteer grower in Maryland.

The zoo did benefit in foot traffic from the birth of Tai Shan. In January 2005, before Tai Shan was born, 32,602 visitors stopped by the panda exhibit. In January 2006, six months after the cub’s birth, nearly 87,000 viewed the cuddly cub.

Such an attendance boost does not necessarily mean more long-term money for zoos.

“It is true that you will see an initial bump when pandas first arrive, and when a cub is born, you’ll see another smaller bump in attendance,” Mr. Kelly said. “But once the pandas have been there, your visitation, attendance and membership [go] back to sustaining levels.”

Chuck Brady, president and chief executive officer of the Memphis Zoo, said his zoo built in a $300,000 sustaining fee to cover shortfalls in attendance after the initial panda pandemonium. But housing two adult pandas, Ya Ya and Le Le, after the current agreement expires in 2013 is not certain.

“We hope that the Chinese will consider waiving that baby fee,” Mr. Brady said. “That would be a big help.”

The situation is further complicated because each zoo contracts with one of two Chinese government agencies. Zoo Atlanta and the Memphis Zoo contract with the Chinese Association of Zoological Agencies; the National Zoo and the San Diego Zoo have agreements with the Ministry of Forestry.

“We want to make sure when we do these kinds of loans that everybody is getting the same loan so there’s no confusion between what one zoo is doing and what another zoo is doing,” said Yadira Galindo, a San Diego Zoo spokeswoman.

Atlanta’s Mr. Kelly said the Chinese have been receptive to discussions so far. Still, losing the pandas remains a possibility.

“Unless we reach a new agreement, we are obligated to give the Chinese back their national treasure,” he said.

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