Yesterday, the San Diego zoo announced that its two giant pandas would soon be leaving for China.

Bai Yun and her six-year-old cub, Xiao Liwu, were to be returned to their homeland at the end of a 23-year lease from the Chinese government.

The zoo has insisted this is a long foreseen end to the lease, rather than a sudden request from China to return the bears.

In the last decades, the pandas have become local celebrities for San Diego – even appearing in the 2004 film Anchorman.

Advertisement
Going home: Bai Yun and her five-month old panda cub in San Diego Zoo. Photo / Getty Images
Going home: Bai Yun and her five-month old panda cub in San Diego Zoo. Photo / Getty Images

However, the bears were never San Diego's to keep.

Yun arrived at the zoo in 1996, on a lease from the country's panda mission.

Xiao Liwu, although born in the US, is still technically the property of China and will be returned to the country, despite never having been before.

The date of departure is 27 April.

Pandas have long since been a diplomatic tool for the Chinese foreign office.

The power of "Panda Diplomacy" as it has come to be called was first realised in 1972 after the first two pandas were leased to the US following president Nixon's visit to China.

Since then China has given pairs of the creatures which are endemic to the country's bamboo forests as a symbol of diplomatic friendship to the country's allies.

Soft power: China has been known to loan pandas to key trading partners. Photo / Getty Images
Soft power: China has been known to loan pandas to key trading partners. Photo / Getty Images

In 2010 Auckland Zoo hoped to gain a black and white panda, after PM John Key discussed brokering a kiwi-for-panda trade. The Chinese politely declined the deal, unable to determine the value of the flightless birds versus a panda.

Advertisement

However, these animals are not gifts.

What does a panda cost?

Each panda's loan comes with a US$1 million ($1.45 million) fee. When Xiao Liwu was born in 2013, the San Diego Zoo had to pay an addition "cub tax" of $400000 ($580000).

The Asian country was able to turn these endangered animals into quite a money spinner.

However, in 1988 the World Wildlife Fund – who uses a panda as its symbol – sued the US Wildlife Service to rewrite the loan agreements to say China must pay at least half of the 'panda tax' into conservation efforts for the wild pandas and their endangered bamboo forests.

The World Wildlife Fund makes sure that fees from pandas loaned in the US go to conservation of the animals in the wild. Photo / Getty Images
The World Wildlife Fund makes sure that fees from pandas loaned in the US go to conservation of the animals in the wild. Photo / Getty Images

In San Diego, the zoo has no plans to dissemble the panda's enclosure, hoping that a new lease will be negotiated.

"We know our community is going to be sad when they hear this, but it's a time for celebration," said Shawn Dixon, COO for the zoo. "They are going home to their home country. It truly is a celebration of all the work we have done."

A study into these bears use in China's exercise of 'soft and cuddly' power suggested that the panda loans were closely tied to diplomatic negotiations.

Oxford University says the loans are based on the Chinese concept of "guanxi".

Panda Diplomacy: China's Xi Jinping meets Germany's Angela Merkel as Berlin Zoo is gifted a paid of pandas. Photo / Emmanuele Contini, Getty Images
Panda Diplomacy: China's Xi Jinping meets Germany's Angela Merkel as Berlin Zoo is gifted a paid of pandas. Photo / Emmanuele Contini, Getty Images

The concept which translates roughly as "networking" implies that seemingly unconnected acts of diplomatic goodwill can be used to underpin ambitious trade deals.

In short the gift of pandas are often used to 'soften up' potential trade partners.

Pandas: China's soft power

In the paper published in the Environmental Practice journal, Dr Kathleen Buckingham asks:

"Why has Edinburgh Zoo got pandas when London Zoo hasn't? Probably because Scotland has natural resources that China wants a stake in. Recipient countries need to assess the broader environmental consequences of 'sealing the deal'".

Pandas changing hands often underpin long term commitments on natural resources - such as Scottish salmon or Australian uranium.

Likewise China has a track record of revoking panda loans from countries that have displeased it.

There are still pandas in Washington, Atlanta and Memphis zoos. However, if the US is remains bullish towards China, might it soon find its panda assets relocated to other countries?

China, if you're listening, the going rate on kiwis is two birds for a bear.