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

Page 5 of 8

"One of the great challenges of this whole project will be the money," Parrott concedes. "I think it's realistic to expect that over a ten-year period, we're looking at probably twenty million dollars--and it could easily be more than that. The most important part of this is a contribution of one million dollars per year toward the Chinese conservation effort, because that needs global support. Then there are other moneys involved: the management and upkeep of the giant pandas in the captive situation, the research projects, funding the researchers, which is really the purpose of the whole project in Oakland--all of that will probably approach two million a year total. And we have to build the research center first, too, and that could be anywhere from five to eight million. Plus, depending on how much extra staff and how much educational programming we'll do, it could cause it to be even more expensive than that. Just looking at the bamboo farm alone could be daunting."

The Oakland Zoo does have distinct advantages in the run for the pandas: it currently only uses 100 acres of the 525-acre Knowland Park, so there's plenty of room to build panda runs to exact specifications, and Oakland's mild climate would allow the animals to live in comfort outdoors without the restrictions of air-conditioning. But pandas in the Oakland hills would also attract a unprecedented number of visitors. The zoo currently hosts only 450,000 visitors each year. Compare that to Zoo Atlanta, where admission jumped from 850,000 to over one million a year since the introduction of its panda pair; the National Zoo marked the entrance of its one-millionth panda visitor after just five months.

When I talked with zoo leaders before the trip, no one was worried about crowd control, at least not yet. There are too many other daunting problems to be solved first. The city has already secured a letter of intent from China's Wildlife Conservation Association, which oversees the panda program, but that was over a year ago, and significant work is needed to firm up that preliminary commitment before the wildlife association can even approach Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, who will have the final say. Meanwhile, on the home front, the US Fish and Wildlife Service oversees imports of exotic wildlife like pandas, and its official "Policy on Giant Panda Permits" is a thick, detailed document. "These are China's pandas, and it's their responsibility and their authority to conserve these animals in the wild--so nothing happens unless the Chinese are interested," says USFWS acting assistant director for international affairs Kenneth Stansell. "But in order for us to issue that permit, we have to make a finding that the import of these animals actually contributes to the enhancement of the species in the wild. We require them to have in the application a very detailed research plan, both for in situ and field research, a blueprint of the facilities to house the pandas, and then whatever agreement has been negotiated with China." Our first meeting in Beijing makes it clear that the Chinese believe Oakland has dropped the ball--at least so far--and for the city to recover lost ground now will require a major shift in the way it treats the whole idea. Joined now by the panda project's technical team--zoo director Parrott, its director of veterinary services Dr. Karen Emmanuelson, and Dr. John Pascoe, executive associate dean of the UC Davis veterinary school--we troop into the offices of the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, where we're meeting with Li Zheng Fung, a top representative from the Wildlife Conservation Association.

The Chinese official's inclination is toward politeness, and he specifically mentions the importance he places on his long friendship with Chang. But, when pressed by Parrott and Bobb, Li indicates that the wildlife association had hoped to hear a lot more from Oakland in the year that has passed since the provisional agreement was signed. He asks for detailed plans or a map of the zoo, suggests that Chinese scientists visit the Bay Area to evaluate the site, and recommends that Oakland establish a permanent representative in Beijing to report regularly to the wildlife association.

Peter Pang, an international law attorney and former East Bay resident who has been working behind the scenes to gather support for the project, later interprets the message from the meeting: "They're going to allow at least two more pairs on international loan, and we're in the running with two other cities. Last year, we were in the lead, but I think we've lost a little bit of our glamour; so we're second place now behind Memphis. Our lack of substantive contact has not helped."

Harsh words. As the group climbs back into the waiting van, there is clearly tension in the air. Bobb huddles with Chang, De La Fuente, and Griffith, calling for a staff meeting later in the evening. There is talk of dedicating full-time staff at the zoo and in city administration to furthering the project, and state-level political support is urged. "I focus on negotiating the close," Bobb says, "and I know our roadmap now. That's what I'm going to put together tonight--before I get back on an airplane, it's going to be laid out. So when these guys get back, it's going to be very clear." In effect, Bobb is promising to transform the Oakland panda project from Henry Chang's dream to a high-priority city initiative. This may help in some ways--Chang seems to have had difficulty rounding up Jerry Brown's vital support for the fund-raising effort, for example--but even a concentrated, organized approach will have difficulty bridging the gaps in communication that have plagued the project so far.

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