Canada has been lobbying to "rent" panda bears, an endangered species, from China for more than four decades. The arrival of Er Shun and Da Mao on Monday in Toronto, on a specially designed FedEx transport plane, is a diplomatic coup, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other officials on hand to greet them. The bears will be in Canada for a decade, at Toronto and Calgary zoos, and are expected to dramatically boost the number of visitors to these sites. Canadians are lucky for this rare opportunity to see these remarkable creatures up close. There are only 1,600 giant pandas left in the wild, and 300 in captivity.
A share of the ticket proceeds will be used to pay $1-million to China's world-leading research base in Chengdu and a smaller panda centre in the nearby city of Chongqing. And so their presence here does benefit their brothers and sisters in the wild.
And yet no amount of panda diplomacy can obscure the reality that China as a country is not a leader in species conservation. Instead, it is one of the world's major markets for smuggled ivory, as well as of tiger bone and other threatened animals and plants used for traditional medicines. China was cited at the recent conference on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild Fauna and Flora for not doing enough to curb the illegal trade in elephants, rhinos and tigers, sold for their body parts.
China, like many other countries, can and should do more to preserve endangered species on its own soil, including Yangtze river dolphins, tigers and snow leopards. It has had some success with increasing the panda population, thanks to the creation of new reserves and the eradication of the accidental poaching of pandas.
"The pandas could be a way to enter into a conversation about other conservation issues," said Steven Price, conservation science director for World Wildlife Fund Canada.
The Canadian government is right to feel gratitude to have the pandas on loan – but should not forget that there are many other species in China in need of protection.