The curse of the rented panda

American zoos are regretting the day the pandas arrived because of the high fees that China charges for housing the iconic creatures

By Brenda Goodman  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ATLANTA, GEORGIA

Thu, Feb 16, 2006 - Page 9

Lun Lun and Yang Yang have needs. They require an expensive all-vegetarian diet -- 38kg a day, each. They are attended by a four-person entourage, and both crave privacy. Would-be divas could take notes.

But the real sticker shock comes from the fees that Zoo Atlanta and three other US zoos must each pay the Chinese government: US$2 million a year to rent a pair of pandas.

For that, Dennis Kelly, chief executive of Zoo Atlanta, could take an aspirin. Kelly's financial headache is one familiar to Hollywood's booking agents, but decidedly more novel to conservationists. He says Lun Lun and Yang Yang, the park's giant pandas, are draining the institution's coffers faster than they can be replenished -- even though they are the zoo's star attractions.

It is not that pandas eat a lot, though they do. It is not even that their care runs five times what it costs to board the next most expensive animal -- an elephant. But the leasing fees are what hurt the most.

Because of the costly loan obligations, Kelly has joined with the directors of the three other US zoos -- in Washington, San Diego and Memphis -- that exhibit pandas to negotiate some budgetary breathing room. If no agreement with China can be made, Kelly said, the zoos might have to return their star attractions.

"If we can't renegotiate, they absolutely will go back," Kelly said. "Unless there are significant renegotiations, you'll see far fewer pandas in the United States at the end of this current agreement."

San Diego's contract with China is the first to expire, in 2008. The last of the contracts, in Memphis, ends in 2013.

Giant pandas are indisputably popular. Two months ago, the public snapped up 13,000 tickets to see Tai Shan, born at the National Zoo in Washington last year, in just two hours. Later that day the free tickets were being traded on eBay for as much as US$200 each.

"People will get up in the middle of the night to see the pandas," said Don Lindburg, head of the office of giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo.

"I don't think there is a comparable animal. There isn't the enormity of response that you find with pandas," he said.

But after the first year, crowds dwindle, while the expenses remain high.

A curator, three full-time keepers and one backup keeper care for Lun Lun and Yang Yang at Zoo Atlanta.

A six-person crew travels around the state six days a week, harvesting bamboo from 400 volunteers who grow it in their backyards for the zoo to provide the 38kg that each panda eats daily (Zoo Atlanta tried growing its own on a farm, as the Memphis Zoo does, but Lun Lun and Yang Yang turned up their noses).

"It's crazy," Kelly says. "These bears, year-round, are some of the most pampered animals on the planet. We measure everything that goes in. We measure everything that goes out."

Then there are the contracts, most lasting 10 years. Because China retains ownership of the pandas, zoos lease each pair for US$1 million a year. If cubs are born, the annual fee increases by an average of US$600,000. In addition, each zoo has agreed to pay another US$1 million or so each year to finance research and conservation projects in the US and in China. Taken together, Kelly says, the contracts are worth more than US$80 million to the Chinese government.

Kelly said he hoped China would consider the request to reduce the fees because most other countries pay far less for their pandas. Australia and Thailand, he says, pay about US$300,000 each year for theirs.

"There's a perception in China that US zoos are very rich because when they come over the zoos are beautiful," said Chuck Brady, the chief executive of the Memphis Zoo.

Zoos say they can break even on pandas, but only for the first few years.

"Year three is your break-even year," Brady said.

The Memphis Zoo expects to lose about US$300,000 per year on the pair of pandas it leased in 2003.

"After that, attendance drops off, and you start losing vast amounts of money. There is a resurgence in attendance when babies are born," Brady said.

Because they have had cubs born, the San Diego and the National Zoos have fared better financially than Zoo Atlanta and the Memphis Zoo, which still have not had luck with their breeding programs.

"The general feeling on the American side is that when the initial negotiations were done 10 years ago, we had very little information on the impact of pandas on zoos," Brady said. "Now we're stuck with this template."

Apart from foot traffic, pandas also inspire valuable, enthusiastic corporate sponsorships. FedEx, for example, flew Ya Ya and Le Le, the pandas at the Memphis Zoo, to the US from China in a decorated "Panda Express" plane. The public was even able to track the flight on a designated FedEx Web site.

Fujifilm, Home Depot, UPS and others have donated millions to be sponsors of panda exhibits at zoos, hoping to solidify business relationships with China, which regards the animal as a national symbol.

So far, China seems amenable to considering the zoos' request, though Kelly expects the negotiations to progress slowly.

"They are listening," Kelly said. "They are open. They have not responded to anything other than to say that the items that we put on the table are open to discussion. They have indicated they think the zoos need to honor their current agreements before we make changes."

In the zoos' favor is the fact that the lease program has generated important reproductive successes for a species that is critically endangered, said David Towne, director of the Giant Panda Conservation Foundation. Only 1,500 giant pandas are believed to be left in the wild.

For now, though, zoos with pandas do not inspire the envy they once did.

"It was like having a World Series winner in your town," said Towne, who lives in Seattle.

But now, he said, based purely on economics, "I've told my mayor and everyone else that the last thing we want is pandas."