03/27/2013 06:17 EDT | Updated 03/27/2013 06:57 EDT

Chinese Giant Pandas In Canada: What If Something Happened To Them Here?

OTTAWA — The delivery of two of China’s prized giant pandas in Toronto Monday was heralded as a sign of warmer relations between that country’s Communist leadership and Stephen Harper’s government.

So what if something happened to China’s national treasures? What if Er Shun or Da Mao died on Canadian soil? Would there be diplomatic repercussions?

The Toronto and Calgary Zoos, which will host the pair for separate five year stints, played down the possibility that anything bad could befall the pandas.

“Right now, we are working on keeping them alive,” Toronto Zoo spokeswoman Cynthia Shipley said. The zoo has taken great care to ensure the five-year-old female Er Shun and the four-year-old male Da Mao will thrive in Canada. Not only will they have round-the-clock treatment from the zoo’s curators and veterinarians, but rotating pairs of Chinese experts will also watch the animals until the Chinese are satisfied that Er Shun and Da Mao are in safe hands, Shipley said.

The Toronto Zoo, which has been preparing for the pandas’ visit for several years, was inspected by the Chinese government, the botanical society and Chinese zoos before being given the green light, she added.

Still, accidents can happen.

In 2010, male panda Kou Kou died while officials at the Oji Zoo in Kobe, Japan, tried to extract semen from him. The Chinese alleged foul play and demanded $500,000 in compensation. The loan agreement stipulated payment if the 14-year-old panda were to die as the result of human error. Media reports suggested that Kou Kou suffered a heart attack after being given too much anesthetic.

In 2007, a female panda named Yan Yan died unexpectedly while on loan to the Berlin Zoo. According to media reports, a post-mortem conducted by German vets found that she suffered heart failure caused by acute constipation. Beijing accused the Berlin Zoo of failing to provide appropriate living conditions and care, and it demanded a penalty of $500,000, as stipulated by the loan agreement. The zoo refused, causing a minor diplomatic incident. It sent an autopsy report to Beijing saying Yan Yan died of natural causes, but the Chinese State Forestry Administration wanted to conduct its own investigation. The panda spent several years on ice in a mortuary, but no one at the Berlin Zoo could confirm Tuesday what has happened to her body.

Story continues after the slideshow.

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The Toronto Zoo said it would have to pay a fee only if the death of a panda were caused by the zoo. As part of its agreement with China's State Forestry Administration and the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens, the Calgary and Toronto Zoos each have to pay a $1 million annual fee to China when they host the pair, money that is directed towards conservation efforts of wild pandas.

If something happened to the pandas in Canada, it would be a tragedy, but the zoo would bear the burden, David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, told The Huffington Post Canada Tuesday.

Diplomatic relations between the two states would not suffer as a result, he said.

“The Chinese understand that these are animals and that they have a lifespan,” Mulroney said. “I don’t think something is going to happen to the pandas, but even if something did, I don’t think it would have an impact on the relationship.”

When a beaming Harper greeted the pandas Monday, the Prime Minister said the pair are a symbol of peace and friendship.

“Over the years, these pandas will help us learn more about each other while serving as a reminder of our deepening relationship, a relationship based on mutual respect and growing collaboration,” he said.

During the welcome ceremony, Chinese Ambassador Zhang Junsai noted that the pandas would help nurture Canada’s and China’s relationship by building people-to-people links.

Harper’s spokesman Andrew MacDougall would not comment on the “hypothetical” that a panda might die in Canadian hands.

Gordon Houlden, the director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta and a former diplomat posted in China, told HuffPost that, since there are barely more than 200 pandas living in captivity, the loan suggests Canada has been “favoured.”

It’s not just that the pandas are a warm cuddly “antidote” to the public’s negative view of China on issues such as manufacturing, pollution and spying, Houlden said. China’s message, he said, is: “We value you, think of us not just as an economic power, we have attractive dimensions to our country.”

But if something were to happen to the pandas, he added, it “would be extremely bad.”

“Having them not make it through the 10-year period would not be good sign. I think the Chinese would put the best possible face on it, but I am sure both they and us will be making a very special effort to make sure they stay healthy.”

Houlden does not think a panda death would result in a cooling of the relationship, but he said the Chinese response would depend on the circumstances.

“I think as long as it wasn’t malicious. If it was just one of those things that happens with animals or humans who have health issues, then I think it would be understandable. It just wouldn’t be good karma, it wouldn’t be good – it wouldn’t be auspicious, to use a Chinese term – to have something happen to them when they were on loan from China.”

“Let’s assume it is not going to happen, but 10 years is a long time, a lot of things could happen in 10 years.”

Henry Nicholls, author of The Way of The Panda, said if one or both of the pandas died, there would likely be an inquiry and possibly a financial penalty. But if a panda died of natural causes, China would most likely replace the animal.

“In other loans, the contract has included hefty fines for a panda [death] in captivity and an additional fee payable on the birth of a cub,” Nicholls said.

HuffPost has learned that the agreement between the Canadian zoos and the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens stipulates that if a panda cub is born in either Toronto or Calgary, the zoo must add $100,000 to its $5 million conservation contribution to the Chinese ($1 million a year for each of the five years the bears remain with each zoo). The cub would be required to stay with its mother at the zoo where it is born until it is 12 months old, at which point the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens would determine whether the cub should stay in Canada or be sent to China.

Pandas are not cheap, Nicholls added.

“Canada, in this instance, is paying huge amounts of money for the privilege of pandas, but it is worth spending, because it is a diplomatic opener,” Nicholls said. “It’s just a way that you forge a relationship with China. You ask for pandas, you have a little, friendly panda conversation and then you get down to business.”

It used to be that the Communist Party would give pandas to more important Western countries with which it wanted to forge relationships – as it did in 1972 by giving two bears to the Washington Zoo following president Richard Nixon’s visit, Nicholls said. “Now, it’s completely the other way.”

Canada hasn’t had any pandas since the “seedy” period of the mid-to-late 1980s, when short-term, non-breeding loans in Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary – as well as other U.S. cities – sparked controversy, Nicholls said.

After widespread concern about corruption regarding payments to China and of breaches of the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species, there were no panda exchanges until the late 1990s, Nicholls said. Then the San Diego Zoo persuaded China to lend them a pair of pandas for breeding, with the money going to panda conservation efforts.

Nicholls said it is also very difficult for zoos to make a profit from the animals. Ignoring the non-monetary benefits, Nicholls said, it is often hard for zoos to recoup the $1 million a year conservation fee as well as other expenses associated with the bears.

Clément Lanthier, president and CEO of the Calgary Zoo, is cautious about the pandas’ financial potential.

Although he expects yearly attendance could jump by 30 to 50 per cent, “the cost of hosting the pandas is also very high.”

Transportation, the $1 million annual conservation fee, the bamboo (Toronto Zoo is paying $560,000 a year for the feed, including transportation costs), the extra staff and any new enclosures will drive up the cost, he said.

Still, Lanthier said, the pandas are worth it because they will make it easier to draw attention to conservation efforts for other endangered species such as the Vancouver Island marmot and the leopard frog, which, unlike the big and fuzzy pandas, are often overlooked.

Lanthier said he is not too worried about the possibility of the pandas’ dying, because Canada’s pair is young and should be back in China before they show any “signs of old age.”

Yuen Pau Woo, president and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, said if the pandas died of natural causes, he didn’t think it would lead to a rupture in the relationship.

“The panda loan could be seen as a stepping stone of a stronger relationship,” Woo said, although he cautioned against reading too much symbolism into the loan.

It was Canada that made an overture to the Chinese many years ago seeking to borrow two pandas, Woo said. The request was forcefully reiterated when Michaëlle Jean went to China in 2010 as governor general and was finalized during Harper’s visit last February.

“Let’s not be under any illusion that the Chinese leadership gets up every morning and thinks about how to make Canada a more friendly place for the country,” he said.

While Canada has “dramatically improved the relationship” since 2009, Woo said, Canada is still far behind many of its Western industrial counterparts at courting the Chinese.

“The panda loan is an important step forward ... [but] more work needs to be done,” he said.

“In the end, they are a tourist attraction,” Woo said. “We shouldn’t read too much beyond that.”

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