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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In many ways, the project has suffered from a chicken-before-the-egg conundrum: how can the zoo design a proposal to present in China, before it knows what proposal the Chinese would be likely to accept? "We've done a rough conceptual plan, but we need more input from the Chinese side as to what they'd like to see," Parrott says. "This whole program for giant panda preservation is really a Chinese program, and all Americans can do is help them along that line. We came as a fact-finding mission to find out just how we can help." This conceptual gridlock cropped up again and again; Chang had told me before we left that he hasn't been able to nail down donations of technology from key biotech firms because he hasn't known what specific equipment to ask for; but without any real sense of the financial support backing the project, zoo vet Emmanuelson, who could end up being the lead American scientist in charge of the pandas' welfare, was reluctant to pester colleagues at much larger zoos in the hopes of developing a complementary research program.

No matter how many bold promises city leaders may make, the one-year lapse of attention is bound to haunt the city's panda-acquisition efforts--as it does when we reach Sichuan province, and Pang announces he cannot accompany the group on a morning tour of a panda breeding center since he'd promised not to return to the center unless he could bring a machine to make the pellets that supplement the bamboo diet of pandas in captivity with him as a gift. Why haven't we found a donor to make this gift? everyone wonders out loud. "Within thirty days of returning home, I'll have it for you," De La Fuente promises.

The zoo staff seems to almost find relief in the meeting with the wildlife association representative. Parrott, in fact, calls it a good meeting, welcoming the directive to start the concrete work of forming a technical partnership with his Chinese counterparts. "The fact is, we couldn't have advanced without their input," he tells me as we ride to Beijing's Capital Airport. "To go far without information from them would have been a mistake."

Parrott is a tall, lanky man with an easygoing, straight-talking demeanor who is widely seen as the man who saved the Oakland Zoo. He took the reins in 1985, at a time when the zoo was infamous for some of the worst animal treatment in the country--and guided it through tough years, including one particularly dark season when an animal trainer was killed by an elephant on zoo grounds. Now the zoo features some of the most innovative animal-management programs in the country, and has been recognized with awards from animal-rights groups. Parrott is a polished spokesman for the zoo, but he also has frustrations with the political process--given a chance, he'll eagerly steer the conversation away from strategy and negotiations, towards the dire need for conservation to slow the fearful pace of habitat loss and wildlife endangerment.

Despite the missteps that have plagued their efforts so far, Oakland officials have a big trump card. "We are not like the rest of the people who just want a panda for the zoo," Chang told me months ago, "because we are looking at this as a research project. We have teamed up with UC Davis and biotech companies to find ways to preserve the dwindling population of pandas." While the contributions from the biotech industry remain unclear, the rich research offerings of the vet school at Davis could save the day. "We're looked at with a greater degree of interest than Memphis because we're focusing on biotech," Pang tells the group. "The one thing the Chinese really want out of this is training and technology, the kinds of things the Bay Area can offer." As the largest public veterinary institution in the world, with a $7-million-per-year budget into genetic research and a wealth of teaching programs, Davis has a lot to offer.

That hypothesis will be tested in Chengdu, the seat of the provincial government of Sichuan, and the next stop on the itinerary. Here, the delegation first meets with the province's vice-governor--an honor for the Oaklanders, one that Pang worries has not been fully appreciated when Bobb arrives more than ten minutes late for the formal meeting. "Now we've taken it to the provincial level, Henry," Pang tells Chang after the meeting. "This is the point of no return."

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