‘Pay to play with the panda’ policies draw criticism from animal lovers

By Xu Ming Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/21 19:28:39

China’s endangered national animals are suffering from reckless tourism and crass consumerism

An endangered species, there are only 1,800 wild pandas and 370 in captivity

Pandas become easily frightened, anxious and exhausted from constant human attention

It is an open secret that many zoos and breeding facilities have "pay to play with the panda" policies


A tired panda rests on a stone in a zoo.  Photo: IC

It is said that one of the most peaceful places on China's social media is the comment section below any post featuring pandas, where everyone sighs a collective "aww" regardless of age, birthplace or political views.

To cater to people's enthusiasm, at certain breeding facilities around the country, visitors lucky enough to obtain ultra-exclusive tickets are allowed close contact with the pandas. However, most panda fans simply settle for live-streaming broadcasts or videos that follow the every move of their favorite pandas.

"We are addicted to pandas and like to follow all their movements on live broadcasts, but it should not be at the cost of affecting their life," Renxin, a panda lover, told the Global Times.

Renxin, who follows news about pandas, said that she is particularly worried by a recent report which says that some pandas become exhausted due to improper live broadcasts from unprofessional photography teams.

Experts point out that pandas are becoming anxious and exhausted by the constant attention and the commercial bustle surrounding their enclosures.

Baby schema

Panda watching has indubitably become one of China's most popular pastimes (their dining, playing, pooing, bathing and all), as the cute creatures exude a certain happiness, warmth and even magical power that tends to rub off on humans.

"I could spend a whole day simply watching the pandas in the zoo ... watching them eat bamboo makes me feel the freshness of bamboo and watching them sleeping makes me feel like I'm in a dream too," netizen Xiongsheng wrote on question-and-answer platform zhihu.com.

Fans from other countries who subscribe to panda videos on video-sharing sites even dream of coming to China to work as panda keepers. "I would be a much nicer guy if I was doing this job," netizen Vinymilano wrote below a CGTN video showing how giant pandas create trouble as staff clean their home.

Qiu, an expert from the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP), told the Global Times that pandas are beloved by so many mainly because they appear childlike and naive.

A pandas' looks falls into what Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz called "baby schema," which refers to facial and body features that make an animal appear cute - and thus makes others want to care for it. Many panda fans treat cubs like their own children, monitoring their growth and keeping track of their development.

There are also cultural factors leading to the enduring popularity of pandas, as Qiu pointed out.

"They look big but with mild characteristics. They could eat meat but are in fact vegetarian, leading people to associate them with the Chinese idiom 'The butcher who lays down his knife at once becomes a Buddha.'"

"Their living philosophy fits the values and mindset of most Chinese people," said Qiu, adding that in some regions of Sichuan Province, the main habitat for pandas, the animal is regarded as a mountain god. "When pandas curl up, they look like the picture of Taichi Altar in Taoism."

Other fans love pandas simply for personal reasons. "They make me feel warm. I feel relaxed the second I look at them when I'm feeling bad," said Renxin.

"I work in a profession where I could be driven crazy eight times one day. When I feel extremely bad and watch the photos of pandas, I feel cured because the world still has so beautiful things like pandas," a netizen wrote on zhihu.com.

A woman is watching pandas on a live-streaming platform. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Booming business

But the popularity of pandas is a double-edged sword.  With all this frantic enthusiasm, pandas often win the most attention from the public, the government and celebrities when it comes to financial support.

They are the winning card for every zoo in the world. Besides ticket sales and commercial merchandizing, some places also hold profitable programs and activities to attract die-hard fans.

At the Dujiangyan base of CCRCGP, volunteers who love pandas enough to be their house cleaners pay 700 yuan ($106) to spend the day as a "panda nanny," cleaning up their droppings and feeding them bamboo.

For fans in distant provinces or other countries, online videos and live broadcasting are the best ways to panda gaze. Ipanda, hosted by CGTN, and Pandapia, owned by a Japanese company, are the two biggest live-streaming platforms in China providing panda videos all day every day.

Both sites are followed by millions of people globally. According to the People's Daily, Ipanda attracts more than 200,000 viewers on a daily basis. Since Pandapia started a live broadcast in December of 2016, it has received over 1.5 million yuan in donations from smitten netizens. 

"The live broadcasting of pandas helps disseminate the panda culture and lets more people engage in the protection of our national treasure," said Qiu.

But meeting human demand sometimes comes at the cost of negatively affecting the pandas' well being. To Qiu, the videos used by Ipanda are from surveillance cameras, which do not disturb the pandas.

But with more and more tourists showing up at zoos and breeding facilities wielding cameras, as well as photography teams with video recording equipment, many of the bears are suffering from anxiety and exhaustion.

"I watched a Pandapia broadcast and noticed the camera man deliberately teasing the cubs," netizen yesterday-P complained on Weibo.

Occasionally there have been scandals saying pandas are forced to perform or pose with tourists for pictures. Some pandas are even appearing in Chinese reality television programming, much to the dismay of true panda aficionados.

Sarah, a panda lover from Guangdong Province, said she still feels pained about what happened last year to Qingqing, one of China's newest panda cubs.

Qingqing was forcefully weaned and separated from her mother at the tender age of one (cubs usually are not weaned until after 18 months) just so he could star in a new TV show named Panda Story, in which Qingqing is taken care of by eight Chinese celebrities. The program was so controversial and distasteful that panda fans and general netizens alike united to call for a boycott.

"Commercial activities are understandable, but some just go too far. I don't see why they think such activity will not affect the pandas' life and living habits. Pandas are wild animals and not suitable to be too close to human beings," said Sarah.

Striking a balance

Renxin once applied for the Panda Nanny program, which is when she says the service center told her "paying extra money will allow you to hug the pandas." The center later denied her claim.

After a deadly canine distemper caused the death of four pandas in 2015, the State Forestry Administration issued a notice prohibiting tourists from getting close to endangered animals, particularly pandas.

But according to Sarah, this notice failed to stop many tourists from physically hugging panda cubs at certain conservation bases. Among panda watchers, it is an open secret that slipping some cash to the guards at some zoos and bases will allow visitors physical contact with a panda.

Sarah confirmed this with the Global Times by revealing a chat log with staff from a panda base in Sichuan Province showing that, in June, the base still provides a paid "panda hugging" service for 1,800 yuan per person.

Zhao Huawen, founder of the Eudemonia Bank, a Chengdu-based organization dedicated to protecting panda habitat, also confirmed this with the Global Times.

"There should be a balance. More effort needs to be made in figuring out how to avoid being too close to pandas and avoid disturbing pandas when carrying out commercial activities or live broadcasts," said Zhao.

As an endangered species, there are only approximately 1,800 pandas still living in the wild and about 370 in enclosed protected spaces. Even though their numbers have started to climb in recent decades due to efforts from China's government, their situation is still not ideal or optimistic due to their low reproductive efficiency and easily damaged habitat.

"The protection of pandas should focus not only on captured pandas but also wild ones. Protecting pandas means protecting tens of thousands of other species and the overall ecological environment," Zhao said.

He said that there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to breeding facilities and zoos. "In spite of their popularity and the government's protection policies, some captured pandas live in poor conditions," said Zhao. "The money they help earn these places fails to go back to them."

Zhao suggested that knowledge about the protection of pandas should be further spread to the masses to let more people know how to love pandas properly. "Many fans are sensible, but just as many cannot tell right from wrong when showing their support for pandas."

Newspaper headline: Panda gazing

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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