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ELIZABETH RENZETTI

How panda diplomacy became bear-knuckle haggling Add to ...

A handsome young couple recently moved into an upscale neighbourhood of Edinburgh. You might think they were Hollywood royalty, given their matching fur coats, their predilection for nibbling on exotic shoots and their inability to live together without ripping each other’s hair out.

Then there was the public adulation: Crowds gathered to gaze upon the couple, and hoped they might find time in their busy schedules to procreate. A special crèche was built while the good people of Scotland held their breath. Truly, if Brad and Angelina got naked and made the beast with two backs on the Firth of Forth bridge, there wouldn’t have been as much attention.

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Our nice young couple are celebrities, but not human ones. They’re Yang Guang and Tian Tian, or Sunshine and Sweetie to their English-speaking intimates, and they’re the first giant pandas to live in the United Kingdom for 17 years. Soon, Canada may join the elite club of panda-renting nations – more exclusive and lucrative than the G20, and with considerably fewer policing costs. As Mark MacKinnon revealed in The Globe and Mail this week, it seems likely that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s trip to China will be sealed with the Chinese government’s loan of two pandas to the Toronto Zoo.

As every panda trader knows, you can’t go into these negotiations with an empty sack. You’ve got to bring some shiny beads of your own. So, on this trip, the Prime Minister is expected to talk about both the oil and sealing industries. It’s not a bad deal: Oil (may cause stains to clothing and international reputations) and seal parts (various) for two adorable, crowd-pulling, bottom-scratching, slightly strange mammals. The Edinburgh Zoo, which, like its counterpart in Toronto, had an aging infrastructure and was facing hard decisions about its future, has seen a 200-per-cent rise in attendance since Yang Guang and Tian Tian arrived in their specially designed crates in December. That arrival was breathlessly tracked by all major British television networks. Also, there’s the revenue from the zoo’s gift shop: The living rooms of the nation are now littered with panda tchotchkes of unimaginable variety.

All this does not come without a cost, of course. The loan of the pandas to the Edinburgh Zoo was finalized on the same day as a $4-billion trade agreement between Britain and China, the centrepiece of which was an investment deal between one of Scotland’s largest refineries and a Chinese petrochemical company. Sound familiar? It’s called panda diplomacy, but it might be time to change the name to bear-knuckle haggling. Animal-rights activists squawked and, more important, so did campaigners for human rights in China, but their voices were drowned out by the sound of a lot of people slapping each other on the back.

The bears bring other costs: The Edinburgh Zoo is paying an estimated $1-million each year to China, plus some $100,000 a year to feed them (which seems like an awful lot, but there probably aren’t a lot of all-you-can-eat bamboo buffets in that part of Scotland). There was also an enclosure to be adapted for the creatures, who prefer to live, like an ursine Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter, in separate but adjoining spaces. These are all things the Toronto Zoo will have to consider.

In his recent book The Way of the Panda, science writer Henry Nicholls describes the heartening efforts to conserve wild pandas, and also the Machiavellian ways the bear has been used as a political tool. Because they’re so popular as a zoo attraction, they immediately confer a kind of glamour on whichever politician manages to snag ’em and drag ’em home. Richard Nixon was the first to benefit from a panda bump when the U.S. was given a pair as a gift after his historic visit to China in 1972. “It’s going to be a hell of a story,” he said, but it was bigger than he could imagine (although, unfortunately for him, not bigger than Watergate). There were traffic jams outside Washington’s National Zoo when the animals went on show. Taiwan finally accepted a pair of pandas from China in 2008, but not everyone was happy that they were called “Reunion.”

Pierre Trudeau, no fool, tried to snare some pandas on a trip to China in the early 1970s in return for a handful of beavers, but, alas, Canadian beaver just wasn’t enticing enough. Or maybe Canada brought the wrong shiny beads to the table. This time, if and when the pandas are put in their crates bound for Toronto, someone should examine them, with care, and see whether they come with any strings attached.

Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

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