The Great Oakland Panda Hunt 

The search for increased international trade sometimes leads city officials into very exotic places--China's Wolong Giant Panda Preserve, for instance

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Chang has an irrepressible enthusiasm for the panda project--even the walls of his Oakland office are adorned with blown-up color photos highlighting the high jinks of the playful black-and-white animals--and sometimes this enthusiasm spills over into boosterism. I can't help but wonder if his trust in personal relationships--a very Chinese characteristic, Chang tells me--leads him to keep expecting support that doesn't materialize: one day he tells me he has plans to meet with Mayor Jerry Brown to discuss the formation of an influential board for the panda project; the next day he confesses that the meeting was canceled.

Certainly, few Oakland-boosters would stand in the way of bringing a pair of pandas to the city, but on the other hand, few have stepped forward to put in serious time on the project. If Chang succeeds, he'll be a hero, helping to save the lovable panda while at the same time helping to put Oakland on the map for tourists in the US and for a potentially lucrative audience of businessmen in China. But as I sip kiwi juice in the posh lounge of Dalian's upscale airport, waiting to meet the airplane that is bringing the Oakland delegation from Hong Kong (where city officials have spent a few days meeting with investors and conducting city business) I reflect that success is by no means assured.

Pandas--in Oakland? After years of rapacious poaching like that of the Roosevelts, and even more importantly the logging of vital habitat in China, there are only an estimated one thousand giant pandas left alive, and the black-and-white bears are among the most endangered large mammals in the world. Although biologically they are omnivores, pandas have developed a highly specialized diet of bamboo, and must eat thirty pounds a day of the leafy plant to survive. Moreover, breeding efforts of pandas in captivity have struggled, although there's been a marked success this year. Relatively recently introduced to the West, pandas are a favorite around the world, but only three American zoos--the high-profile institutions at San Diego, Atlanta, and Washington, DC--currently house the endangered bears.

"It would be a real feather in our cap to be operating with that elite group," comments the zoo's Parrott, but in fact, the zoo would never have dreamed of making a bid for the giant panda on its own--it was Chang's idea from the start. In the weeks before the trip, even panda-project supporters seem to wonder if Oakland is getting too big for its britches. An administrator from the UC Davis Vet school--which has agreed to partner with the zoo--tells me their executive dean has yet to be informed that he's being sent on the trip. A zoo vet mentions that she's been reluctant to ask the other three panda zoos for ideas on cooperative research since the Oakland panda project still feels so uncertain. And Applied Biosystems, the Silicon Valley genetics company Chang is hoping will join an Oakland-based panda research coalition, declines to send a representative on the trip, opting to wait for a more detailed proposal.

But there's one group of Oaklanders who couldn't be happier to send Chang and his delegation off on a panda hunt, no matter how quixotic it might be: port officials and other global trade interests. In fact, the Bay Area World Trade Center pitched in to help fund the trip (Chang is adamant that he will not spend city money on the project), because it believes that whether or not the group returns with pandas in tow, the quest itself will be good for Oakland's bid to capture a larger piece of Pacific Rim trade.

"China's all about building relationships, and so it always helps when you go there with high-level dignities," explains Jose Duenas, executive director of the trade center. "When you're dealing at that high level there's more opportunity to work out deals or talk about areas where there's problems. The more that Oakland gets out into the global marketplace, the better recognition that we'll get as a city." Plus, city administrators told me, it makes good business sense for the city to tag along with Chang whenever the Chinese-American councilmember makes a trip; Chang's family connections alone give him an excellent reputation, and his years of friendship with many high-ranking Chinese merchants and government officials give Oakland a leg up.

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