Photo/IllutrationXiang Xiang at Tokyo's Ueno Zoo in Taito Ward on June 10 (Kazutaka Eguchi)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

See Xiang Xiang while you can. The giant panda born two years ago at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoological Gardens has to go back to China at the end of next year.

The date of her return was extended as a result of talks between the Tokyo metropolitan government and its Chinese counterpart. Still, it begs the question: Why does Xiang Xiang have to go back to China at all?

In the same vein, does that mean all giant pandas in Japan will eventually be returned to China?

The Asahi Shimbun contacted Masaki Ienaga, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University, for answers to these questions and to get the rundown on the global setup for the management of giant pandas.

Ienaga is an expert on the subject, having authored a book titled “Panda Gaiko” (Panda diplomacy).

Excerpts of the interview follow:

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Question: Why must Xiang Xiang, which after all was born at Ueno Zoo, have to return to China?

Ienaga: Xiang Xiang’s parents are in Japan on loan from China under the designation of “breeding research,” with a limited term of 10 years. An agreement between the Tokyo metropolitan government and its Chinese counterpart says any offspring born of the pair must be returned to China.

The initial agreement said Xiang Xiang would be returned when she turned 2. It is believed that arrangement had to do with the mating age of giant pandas.

Female pandas go into heat at the age of 3 or 4. Around the time they reach puberty, an arrangement is made for them to go to China, where there is a large population of giant pandas, to find partners and avoid inbreeding.


Q: You say the pandas are “on loan” from China?

A: In the past, in fact, they were given as a “present.”

The practice all started in 1941, in the middle of the Second Sino-Japanese War, when the government of the Republic of China presented giant pandas to the United States as a sign of gratitude for Washington’s assistance.

Kang Kang and Lan Lan, the first pandas to arrive in Japan, were also given as a present when Tokyo and Beijing normalized their diplomatic relations in 1972. That sparked a panda craze in Japan.

The situation, however, changed in 1984, when giant pandas were included in a list of animals that cannot be commercially traded under the framework of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The convention is aimed at preventing wild animals and plants from being exploited to the point of extinction. Inclusion in the list meant that transactions in, and donations of, giant pandas were no longer allowed.

Concerned parties in Japan and the United States, where there was a huge public craze for pandas, still wanted to find some way to bring pandas into their countries. As a result, a mechanism was born in 1994 to allow pandas to be handed over by China to other nations under the designation of “loan for breeding research.”

The first to arrive under that setup was Eimei, who sired many offspring and is kept at Adventure World in Shirahama, Wakayama Prefecture.

It is assumed under the setup that long-term loans aimed at breeding research, which is different from short-term “exhibition,” will help efforts to conserve pandas and does not go against CITES. That thinking underlies the current loan agreement.

Q: Currently, zoos in Japan have 10 giant pandas. They are Adventure World, Ueno Zoo and Kobe Oji Zoo. Are they all on loan on the basis of that agreement?

A: No. Agreements are concluded on a case-by-case basis between a Chinese entity, such as the China Wildlife Conservation Association, and its Japanese counterpart, such as a zoo or local government.

The respective agreements may differ in detail, but what they all have in common is that they are long-term agreements, covering something like 10 years, and state the loan is for breeding purposes.

It is customary to pay $1 million (108 million yen) or so a year to the Chinese party concerned to rent a male-female pair, ostensibly to cover the costs of activities to conserve giant pandas in China.

The rental fees are not clearly defined. It appears that conservation activity expenses are sometimes discounted, and even dropped altogether in some cases, depending on the circumstances of the recipient country or the intention of Chinese officials.

Q: Are the offspring of pandas that arrived in Japan as a “present” before the CITES regulations under Japanese ownership?

A: Yes. Fei Fei and Huan Huan, the couple that arrived after Kang Kang and Lan Lan, gave birth to cubs, who, unfortunately, failed to breed the next generation. All pandas currently in Japan are therefore under Chinese ownership.

There would be pandas under U.S. or Japanese ownership if only offspring of the second, third and subsequent generations had been bred from the pandas that were given as presents.


Q: Do you mean all giant pandas in the world are under China’s control?

A: Yes, precisely, because giant pandas only inhabit western China. But China didn’t always exercise perfect control over pandas.

A giant panda cub created a craze, the world’s first of the sort, in the United States in 1936, but the panda in question had been taken out of China without permission. Some U.S. and British explorers were capturing, and secretly bringing back, giant pandas during that period.

At the time, giant pandas were not particularly treasured in China and no pandas were kept or exhibited at zoos there. Only in 1955 did a zoo in Beijing start keeping pandas.

It could be said, in that sense, Westerners were the first to appreciate giant pandas.

The rare species inhabiting the hinterlands of China, which were considered even more out-of-the-way than Africa by Westerners of the time, quickly caught attention. The lovely look of giant pandas earned them the love of the general public.

The government of China learned that giant pandas could be a draw for both cash and crowds. It later began questioning the conduct of non-Chinese who caught and smuggled pandas out of the country, thereby, in Beijing’s words, infringing on China’s sovereignty.

Afterward, permission from the Chinese government became a prerequisite for anyone wishing to acquire a panda.

Q: Given that all pandas have to be returned eventually to China, so you think the day will come when there are no pandas in Japan any longer?

A: It is conceivable that all pandas will be gone from Japan one day if all parent pandas are either dead or have to be returned within a certain date and all their cubs are back in China for breeding purposes.

That said, the Japanese have such a crush on giant pandas that, in a situation like that, they would probably try to find replacement pandas, all the more because that would provide an opportunity for politicians to make an appeal to the public as pandas are a sign of Japan-China friendship.

All that, however, is premised on good ties between Japan and China. Nobody knows what would happen if the Japanese were to lose their interest in pandas.