'Cuddly' diplomacy: Canada's new panda cubs renew the politics of cuteness

As adorable as Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue may be, the giant panda cubs that go on public display at the Toronto Zoo today are also something of a conundrum when it comes to the politics, economics and ecology of wildlife conservation.

Toronto Zoo's fluffy twins no guarantee of long-term attendance boost or help for pandas in the wild

Life is full of fun for Jia Panpan and his sister Jia Yueyue at the Toronto Zoo, where the five-month-old giant panda cubs go on public display today. (David Donnelly/CBC)

They really couldn't be much cuter in their new playground, poking their little noses at balls and logs, and occasionally taking a wee tumble before landing on their fluffy posteriors.

As adorable as they may be, however, the giant panda cubs that go on public display at the Toronto Zoo today are also something of a conundrum when it comes to the politics, economics and ecology of wildlife conservation that are wound up in their very existence.

"There's nothing very clear cut about pandas, ever," says Henry Nicholls, U.K. author of The Way of the Panda.

Jia Panpan (Canadian Hope) and Jia Yueyue (Canadian Joy) were born at the zoo on Oct. 13, 2015. Their much-anticipated birth came more than two years after their mother, Er Shun, along with an adult male panda named Da Mao arrived on loan from China as part of a 10-year, $10-million agreement that will see the animals spend half the time in Toronto and the other half at the Calgary Zoo.

The way Nicholls sees it, the current loan is part of a "new phase" of the panda diplomacy that China undertook, dating back to the Mao Zedong era.

When the giant panda cubs were born - hairless, pink and blind - on Oct. 13, 2015, one weighed 181.7 grams, while the other was 115 grams. (Toronto Zoo/Twitter)

The most recent phase goes back about five or six years, Nicholls says, and corresponds to China's improved success breeding pandas in captivity. Sadly, it's a success that mirrors the ongoing difficulty in reintroducing the endangered species to the wild.

"With nowhere to put them except in institutions, China has started again … pushing them to countries that it wants to establish mainly business operations with," says Nicholls. 

He describes it as a goodwill gesture that puts economic discussions on a useful footing for both sides. "It's soft diplomacy ... its cuddly side."

Political profile

It is also the kind of diplomacy that opens political doors on the receiving end.

"You cannot give a panda to another institution without politicians being involved," says Nicholls, noting those receiving the photogenic bears are probably trying to send a message to China, too.

"So there's a kind of expectation that at these big moments in captive pandas' lives, the politicians are there."

They were certainly there Monday when the names of the panda cubs were officially revealed. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Toronto Mayor John Tory all eagerly snuggled with the cubs and talked proudly about ties with China.

Left unsaid was the potential impact the pandas could have here.

When the loan of the pandas was announced in 2012, Toronto councillor Giorgio Mammoliti said he hoped the pandas would eventually attract 2.5 to three million visitors annually to the zoo.

But the zoo has yet to see any kind of attendance boom to rival that hope.

Attendance has been on a steady decline since 2013, something the zoo's CEO has chalked up to bad weather, although he's hoping for better things now that Jai Panpan and Jai Yueyue are on the scene. (A baby rhinoceros also goes on public display today.)

No change

Still, there's no guarantee of a great attendance turnaround if the experience at other North American zoos is any guide.

"Our annual attendance to the zoo has been more than 3.2 million for more than a decade, with no changes associated with pandas," says Christine Simmons, public relations manager at the San Diego Zoo.

Pandas have been there since 1996, although the nature of that zoo's loan and its focus on conservation research have meant the pandas have often not been on display.

At Zoo Atlanta, there have been some attendance boosts associated with pandas since Lun Lun and Yang Yang arrived from China in 1999.

The Toronto Zoo's giant panda cubs started to develop the visible black and white markings within 10 days of their birth. (Toronto Zoo)

"The highest-attended year in Zoo Atlanta history was the year 2000, the year Lun Lun and Yang Yang made their debut, with over one million visitors," says Rachel Davis, the zoo's director of communications.

The arrival of the first cub, Mei Lan, led to a 25 per cent increase in attendance the year he made his debut, but the zoo did not see a noticeable increase when its second and third cubs debuted, Davis said.

Tensions over money

Panda-spurred attendance can also be controversial for some zoos.

"If they were making masses of money out of [their pandas], it would sit a little bit uncomfortably with their conservation message," says Nicholls.

Some critics are also quite blunt about the impact of pandas on zoo finances.

"They don't make money," Steven Monfort, chief scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, told the New Yorker earlier this year

"Every zoo that ever had pandas realizes they will not make their money back. Just building the infrastructure for pandas costs many millions of dollars, in addition to the cost of supporting, caring and feeding them."

At four months of age, the Toronto Zoo's giant panda cubs were taking solid steps and becoming mobile. (Toronto Zoo)

Instead, Monfort suggests, zoos are taking in pandas for more intangible reasons, including their reputation. But such actions, he feels, are not worth anything unless there are also initiatives to help the species.

All zoos — including Toronto — draw much attention to the conservation efforts that involve the pandas they are hosting.

"Giant pandas are Zoo Atlanta's most significant long-term conservation investment," says Davis.

The zoo, she says, sees the pandas as having a "crucial role as ambassadors for endangered species and other wildlife and wild places," and offering a "very valuable educational opportunity" to visitors.

"Anytime an individual makes a connection with a particular animal or species, that individual is more inclined to take steps to protect that species in the wild," Davis says.

Bamboo makes up up 99 per cent of a giant panda's diet. (David Donnelly/CBC)

But part of the conservation argument, Nicholls suggests, has been based on the premise that everything that can be found out about pandas in captivity will, at some point, benefit the animals in the wild, where they number a mere 1,864, according to one 2015 census.

"And whilst that's true, it's possibly not the most efficient or effective or direct way of doing conservation of wild pandas," he argues.

"It might be, but we certainly haven't had that discussion."


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?