The Problem in Mixing Politics and Mammals

by Kurtis Pei 裴家騏


Note: Wild and other local NGOs protested against importing panda "gifts" from China in 2005-6 (see our joint press release with Peacetime Foundation of Taiwan, Humanistic Education Foundation, The Homemaker's Union and Foundation, and Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan, and articles Panda Preservation in Taiwan and Pandas for You and Me). We recommend this recent article on the latest panda import plans, by Kurtis Pei (裴家騏), a professor at National Pingtung University’s Institute of Wildlife Preservation. (Translation by Angela Hong). This piece originally featured in the Taipei Times as a letter to the editor on June 3, 2008 (page 8).

Aside from economic topics, the meeting between Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Wu Poh-hsiung (吳伯雄) and Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) reconfirmed plans for the "gift" of two giant pandas to Taiwan. In response to questions during a legislative interpellation session, Minister of Agriculture Chen Wu-hsiung (陳武雄) said that, in principle, the sooner the pandas arrive, the better.

But China’s gifts of giant pandas have almost always been related to political purposes — and Beijing has made little effort to disguise that fact. Taiwan has no zoo or research group that has made any contribution to the conservation of giant pandas. We are, in a sense, not fully deserving of these creatures. We could very possibly waste the breeding potential of the two pandas, for although Sichuan breeders have had impressive success in breeding, other facilities around the world have been very unsuccessful. Giant pandas are also very costly and would likely affect the budget for indigenous wildlife conservation.

In the last 20 years, Taiwan has more than once refused China’s pandas. The most common reason for rejecting them was political — such as resisting Beijing’s unification tactics, political penetration or attempts to denigrate Taiwan — rather than humanitarian or conservationist considerations. Even two years ago, it was not difficult to see the traces of political correctness in the findings of a team of experts organized by the Council of Agriculture.

In a situation where top policymakers can decide to welcome the pandas or not, it could be very difficult to conduct an objective and professional assessment of the issue. But several aspects should be taken into consideration.

Any pandas dispatched to Taiwan should not be fertile; otherwise the adopting agency must propose practical measures to ensure that their breeding potential will not be wasted. If a panda is fertile, applicants for adoption should have the ability to care for potential cubs adequately in the long term. Applicants must also make concrete and feasible promises to contribute to panda conservation, and they should do likewise toward conserving indigenous wildlife.

Even if authorities decide to reject the pandas, the decision should be made from the point of conservation, with the promise that efforts in conservation will be bolstered. Without the pandas, there is less political incentive to further conservation efforts, but it would nevertheless be an opportunity to exercise our spirit of conservation, which need not be reliant on other considerations.

In the early 1990s, Taiwan faced international criticism for its role in the smuggling of rhinoceros horns, tiger bones, bear gall and other traditional medicine materials to the point of facing trade sanctions from the US. The government responded positively to the wave of internal and external pressure and increased its regard and budget for wildlife conservation. Ever since, even without further crises or inducement, the government and the public have gradually increased their investment in conservation. Apparently we no longer consider the value of conservation from an entirely utilitarian perspective.

Although there is still much room for improvement in Taiwan in terms of wildlife conservation, we have nevertheless been heading in the right direction for the last decade and have in the process built a sound international reputation. It would not be worthwhile to go backward now. The pros and cons of adopting the pandas must be carefully weighed.