Giant pandas Tuan-tuan (團團) and Yuan-yuan (圓圓) finally arrived in Taiwan late on Tuesday, along with the predictable media frenzy, before being whisked off to their new home at Taipei Zoo to begin a month-long quarantine period.
A lot has been said about the political connotations of the government’s acceptance of China’s “gift,” and Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators have urged their Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) counterparts not to politicize the issue.
But the arrival of the animals — in light of China’s record of panda diplomacy around the globe and its very public intentions for Taiwan — is the latest manifestation of Beijing’s united front strategy and therefore an inescapably political move.
If, as KMT spokespeople have repeatedly stressed, the decision to accept these animals is not political, then questions must be raised about the benefits associated with housing them in Taiwan.
The most important point, given the current economic climate, is the cost of looking after them. Taipei Zoo director Jason Yeh (葉傑生) has said that the arrival of the pandas is not some kind of circus sideshow aimed at commercial gain.
If that is the case, then how does the zoo intend to pay for their upkeep?
DPP Taipei City Councilor Chien Yu-yen (簡余晏) has said that Taipei Zoo has budgeted NT$39 million (US$1.18 million) for panda maintenance for the first year alone. In its original 2005 budget statement, the Taipei City Government planned to put aside only NT$9 million per year for the first five years for panda research.
Whatever the true cost, the city government must be transparent and should be asked to justify why spending so much taxpayer money on two pandas is worthwhile when this money could have been invested in much more worthy and commercially viable projects.
The “research budget,” for its part, is bizarre, given that China already has a whole research station of its own devoted to the study of the animals.
Research on forest-dwelling animals forced into a cramped, air-conditioned, two-story concrete and glass building on the subtropical half of an island may produce publishable data, but unless the Chinese government has commissioned an analysis of depressed and homesick pandas, it is hard to see what scientific gains can be made.
Yeh has said that the arrival of the pandas demonstrates the zoo’s “devotion to wildlife preservation,” and may inspire people to pay more attention to the plight of endangered species and the harm that mankind is doing to the natural habitats of many of the world’s largest creatures.
All well and good. But if the zoo were really interested in running an aggressive preservationist line, then it would have lobbied for spectacularly well-funded research projects into endangered species closer to home — the Formosan black bear and the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, for example. There could even be a program to reintroduce clouded leopards to Taiwan’s wilderness.
The zoo and Taipei City officials can beat around the bush as much as they like, but with such flimsy justifications failing to stand up to scrutiny, the benefits of housing these beasts quickly evaporate — and political significance is the only thing that remains.