The first public appearance of Taipei Zoo’s panda cub, Yuan Zai (圓仔), tomorrow set off a new public craze. The only thing crazier is the Taipei City Government’s overwhelming promotion of the pandas as if there were no other animals on display.
Since the birth of the cub in July last year, the city government and the zoo have been devoted to its care while at the same time building public expectation for its debut in the zoo’s Panda Hall.
Yuan Zai became an instant online sensation after the zoo began posting video footage of the cub on YouTube. In November, Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) suggested that the zoo broadcast real-time footage of its daily life to cater to the increasing number of panda fans, despite concern from animal rights advocates that the zoo was exploiting the cub.
Pandas have become the theme for almost all city-run activities. The latest examples are the Taipei Department of Transportation’s unveiling of “panda buses” — several dozen city buses adorned with panda images — and the Department of Civil Affairs’ incorporation of panda themes in the upcoming Taipei Lantern Festival, which has always used zodiac animals in the past.
While the horse will remain as the theme for the main lantern, panda lanterns will be featured at every display area during the festival.
The panda propaganda from the city government is disturbing. As much as President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration and Taipei City Government try to play down the political significance of the pandas, the animals are undeniably Chinese diplomatic tools. The Chinese government made clear its political intention when it named Yuan Zai’s parents Tuan Tuan (團團) and Yuan Yuan (圓圓) before they were sent to Taiwan — together, the names mean reunion in Chinese.
It is one thing for people to love the fluffy animals, but it is a different thing for the government to shrug off the political significance of the pandas’ names and turn the capital city into a panda town.
Political sensibility aside, the city is also failing in terms of animal conservation.
China regards pandas as a national treasure and invests in the protection of the endangered animal with over 40 preservation areas in Sichuan Province.
When the two giant pandas arrived in Taipei in 2009, Taipei Zoo budgeted NT$39 million (US$1.3 million) for panda maintenance in the first year alone. While the Chinese pandas are being pampered in world-class shelters, Taiwan’s only indigenous bear — the Formosan black bear — continues to be neglected.
Formosan black bears are rarer than giant pandas. There are about 2,000 giant pandas left in the wild, but only about 200 wild Formosan black bears. Taipei Zoo has defended the attention it has paid to the pandas, insisting it promotes animal conservation, and said it has taken equally good care of its Formosan black bears since the arrival of the pandas.
However, the Formosan black bear is rarely featured at the zoo or in city government activities.
Many argue that pandas are more lovable and have universal popularity. However, in Japan, a black bear-like mascot named Kumamon recently emerged as the most popular “bear” in the country. The official mascot of Kumamoto Prefecture was created to promote the region, and the character and its merchandise can now be found everywhere in Japan thanks to the prefecture’s promotional efforts.