The bear facts on pandas
I never thought I would be writing about pandas. But this weekend - following millions of dollars and high-level diplomacy – a Chinese couple from Szechuan Province will settle into their new air-conditioned home in sunny Adelaide.
They are arriving by plane, not by boat. There will be no problems at either customs, or passport control.
After a year where there’s been a few tensions between two old friends, the Adelaide connection will help build a new bridge between China and Australia.
Negotiations to install the pair at Adelaide Zoo reached all the way to China’s President, Hu Jintao, and it now stands as an enduring symbol of our nations’ close friendship.
Theirs is an arranged marriage. Wang Wang and Funi (the girl) have not yet met.
But there’s a great deal at stake in their courtship.
And like John and Yoko’s “bed-in for peace”, there will be no privacy.
‘Panda-cam’ ensures that not only will their relentless eating be monitored by 24-hour closed circuit television, but their mating – and, hopefully, birthing - will also be beamed to the world via the internet.
In TV terms, it’s where Big Brother meets David Attenborough.
Feeding will dominate the coverage, given they spend around 14 hours a day chewing their way through more than 20 kilograms of bamboo each.
Even their droppings will be marketed and sold, as a crunchy form of mulch to assist Adelaide gardeners conserve water during the hottest days.
I don’t claim to be a panda expert, even though I’m questioned about them constantly by everyone from Sydney business leaders, to local schoolchildren.
But I was given a unique insight by a world-renowned panda specialist at the Washington Zoo last year.
Her detailed information about the love lives – or more pointedly, the reproductive problems – of pandas cannot be publicly discussed on a family blogging site like The Punch.
However, let it be simply said it’s the males that are at fault in terms of technique, which doubtless accounts for pandas’ dwindling numbers worldwide.
That’s why the first Aussie-born will be such a triumph, when it arrives.
Other, less-classy zoos have tried all sorts of tricks to encourage male pandas to fulfil their duty.
There are wild reports of Viagra mixed with chicken stock and, even more shockingly, videos of pandas coupling being shown to males.
This is what Adelaide Zoo Director, Chris West – a driving force behind this project – jokingly referred to as “panda porn”.
We will be much more scientific.
The impact of the pandas’ arrival in a 10-year lend-lease breeding program cannot be under-estimated.
This will be the first time giant pandas have been permanently placed in any zoo in the southern hemisphere.
Their tourism impact is likely to rival that of Tiger Woods, and even our very own Lance Armstrong.
That’s why Gold Coast Mayor Ron Clarke spat the dummy when their local menagerie lost out to the Adelaide Zoo.
For once, Ron left his run too late. Perhaps he needed the assistance of a reliable pace-setter, such as Alexander Downer.
Pandas in foreign relations go back a long way – supposedly to the 7th Century Tang Dynasty – and, more recently, they follow from the “ping pong” diplomacy of the 1970s.
The Washington Zoo’s pandas were originally a goodwill gesture following Richard Nixon’s historic visit to an ailing Mao Zedong in 1972.
The significance of furry gifts in foreign relations shouldn’t be under-estimated.
I recall accompanying former South Australian Premier John Bannon to Japan in 1983, when the opening question at a media conference was “can we have a koala?”
John painstakingly explained how koalas’ finicky eating habits were hard to replicate outside Australia.
Then - recalling being told that wombats were so hardy they could survive New York’s Underground – I whispered to him that hairy-nosed wombats might make a suitable compromise.
John then made this counter offer, to which the immediate follow-up question was “one bat … or two?”
Two wombats were duly presented to the Himeji Zoo (which named them Bob and Hazel), and they lived very full, contented lives, even through cold, snowy winters.
The dozen or so zoos outside China that have secured pandas see a massive lift in attendances that aren’t just short-term.
Adelaide Zoo will cater for an increase from 400,000 annual visitors to at least 700,000 in the first year with the pandas.
The State Government has contributed millions of dollars to enhance facilities, which will be formally opened by Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, when Wang Wang and Funi complete their 30-day quarantine requirements.
The pandas themselves will be housed in a state-of-the-art air-conditioned enclosure with separate bedrooms, large mature trees and bamboo, and even refrigerated rocks on which they can lounge and lunch.
The prized pair will further enhance South Australia’s already close relationship with China.
For more than 20 years, we’ve had a Sister-State agreement with Shandong Province, where our barley is used in their famous Tsingtao beer.
We are also home to a growing number of Chinese students, as well as Chinese firms entering into joint ventures in mining, and mining exploration.
Our Prime Minister would know that Wang Wang translates to ‘net’ or ‘web’ (as in bringing people together), and Funi means ‘Lucky Girl’.
From next month, the pair will become international stars as their new life in Adelaide is broadcast to the world in glorious, full-colour black and white.
- Follow Mike on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PremierMikeRann
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