If John Key has extra money to spend on conservation, let’s put it towards saving our own threatened species.

True, Prime Minister John Key does lead a conservative government. But trying to curry favour by hiring a couple of giant pandas from his Chinese mates for Wellington Zoo seems a lurch into the prehistoric. It's chimp birthday party stuff.

It's also old hat. Auckland Zoo did it all decades ago, hosting Xiao Xiao and Fei Fei for three months of "pandamania" between October 1988 and January 1989.

China sent the two pandas to Melbourne and Sydney to mark Australia's bicentenary celebrations, and was somehow sweet-talked into giving them a stop-over in Auckland as well.

It cost an eye-watering $500,000 to arrange and promote the panda visit, but these costs were quickly recouped, with visitor numbers exceeding 420,000.


In 2010, Mr Key decided to try to repeat this exercise in panda diplomacy, and offered Auckland Zoo first right of refusal if he could jack up another loan. The zoo politely declined on the grounds that "black and white pandas are not in our collection plan". That was when Wellington jumped in.

At the time, proponents pointed to how Adelaide Zoo's visitor numbers jumped 70 per cent in six months after its two pandas arrived. But Adelaide's visitor bubble came at a cost of nearly $10 million for a new enclosure, and another $16 million "lease" on the pandas for their ten-year visit.

In 2010, Mr Key suggested that as "special friends" of the Chinese, he might be able to trade a couple of pandas for a couple of kiwis. This week he repeated this idea.

It rather misses the question: should we help fund China's attempts to save one of its endangered species - it uses the high rentals collected on panda hires for panda research at home - or should we be using that money to protect and promote our own endangered species. After all, we have a few of them.

The last count I saw listed 2788 of our native plants and animals as endangered. In his doctoral thesis, scientist Mark Seabrook-Davison calculated that only 6 per cent, or 188, of New Zealand's recorded threatened species were being actively managed.

Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee personally delivered the proposal to bring giant pandas to New Zealand to a breeding facility in China. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee personally delivered the proposal to bring giant pandas to New Zealand to a breeding facility in China. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The Department of Conservation is grossly under-funded and is expected to seek sponsors and volunteers to assist it in its vital work. How perilous this cost-cutting is was highlighted a month ago, when amateur deerstalkers were hired to cull pukeko on Motutapu Island in the Hauraki Gulf. After two days of blasting with shotguns on this protected reserve, four priceless takahe were found dead in the pile of 600 pukeko corpses.

There are fewer than 300 takahe in the world. Yet somehow, the civil servants on an island sanctuary entrusted with a flock of 21 of them, presided over the massacre of a fifth of them.

More than a month on, no explanation or prosecution has been announced. There's been no clamour from the government. No minister has resigned. Instead, our masters coo over giant pandas, of which there are at least 1800.


It's not just politicians. Panda porn keeps popping up on the television. The other night I switched on the TV with my dinner on my knee and there was naturalist David Attenborough, with his tape measure out, making mock of some poor panda chap's diminutive penis.

He then ran clips showing the pandas' unsuccessful fumblings. Then came the artificial insemination routine. Is it any wonder they've gone off sex.

If you Google the Adelaide pandas, the headlines are fixated on whether or not they've done the deed.

This is not conservation. It's chimp tea-party with R16 content. It's not something New Zealand taxpayers should be funding.

If we've got extra money to spend on conservation, it should be going towards the kakapo, the takahe, even the kiwi, which is disappearing at around 2 per cent a year. On average, 27 kiwis are killed by predators each week. Then there are plants such as the kauri, plagued by an incurable, die-back disease.

If the government wants to fund conservation work via the zoos we have our own urgent priorities.