It's good news in dismal times. Stock prices are down, house prices are down – but so are panda prices.
The San Diego Zoo has reached a loan agreement with China to keep pandas in Balboa Park for five more years at about half the current cost.
The deal also means three other American zoos can afford to keep the roly-poly black-and-white endangered species, after grumbles that the price was too high – $1 million annually for an adult.
“The Chinese are tough, but they also were very helpful and compromised,” said David Towne, president of the Giant Panda Conservation Foundation, which helped the four zoos negotiate with China.
The three others agreed they could live with the terms that San Diego struck, he said.
The San Diego Zoo said details are expected at a Thursday signing ceremony with officials from the China Wildlife Conservation Association. The zoo – which earned rock-star status among its counterparts for its panda breeding successes – is pleased.
“What the San Diego Zoo has done is create a friendship with conservationists in China,” said Douglas Myers, chief executive of the nonprofit zoological society. “Through this friendship, we have created a collaborative effort that will keep pandas in the hearts and minds of Americans so that we may save them in China.”
San Diego and the other zoos with pandas – Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Memphis – have complained since at least 2006 about China's panda rental rates.
They pay $1 million a year for adult pandas and $500,000 annually for each cub born. On top of that comes research money and expertise donated to China's Wolong Panda Center.
San Diego estimated that it spent $30 million on pandas in the decade after 1996, when it signed a groundbreaking 12-year loan agreement with China. That contract expires this year. Next up is Zoo Atlanta, whose agreement ends in late 2009, and then the National Zoo and the Memphis Zoo, Towne said.
San Diego's new deal is half the current cost for the adult pandas. The cub price is being negotiated. “Our hope is it would be minimal,” Towne said.
China's compromising mood may stem from a reversal of fortune at its breeding campus, where it had been enjoying a run of cub births. The Wolong preserve was severely damaged in May's 7.9-magnitude earthquake and needs to be rebuilt.
“Right now China doesn't really need the pandas back,” Towne said. “They've got pandas kind of coming out of their ears.”
San Diego started its love affair with the black-and-white fur balls in 1987, when it received pandas on a rare six-month loan from China. Only a handful of U.S. zoos got pandas on brief loans in the 1980s.
Then the loans stopped amid concern that the demand for pandas among foreign zoos would threaten the species' survival in China. San Diego was the first in the United States to negotiate a contract after that. San Diego's first long-term residents, Bai Yun and Shi Shi, arrived in late 1996.
Then, in 1999, came the Hannah Montana of panda cubs: Hua Mei. The zoo's first panda cub became an international starlet because she was the first American-born panda to survive into adulthood.
Since that auspicious start, the birth of healthy panda cubs has become virtually a given for San Diego. Hua Mei's half siblings – sired by Gao Gao, who replaced Shi Shi in 2003 – are Mei Sheng, Su Lin and Zhen Zhen. San Diego's good luck may be bad for zoos in Oakland and Omaha, Neb., which reportedly were next in line for the pandas if negotiations had fallen apart.
But in San Diego, at least one zoo lover was cheering yesterday.
“I think that would have been disastrous” if the pandas had departed, said June Andersen of Carlsbad. “It's great for our children and grandchildren to go down and see them and learn about them.”
So, Bai Yun and Gao Gao: Break off a fresh stalk of bamboo. You're staying awhile.