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 7 of 8

Pang has spent a lot of energy on this project, and his work as consultant on this trip, he tells me, is all pro-bono. Certainly, he's hoping for some return on that investment--when the pandas come to Oakland, somebody will have to license all the merchandise, after all. But he's clearly also personally invested in the project. This ambition leads him to exaggeration --I notice, for example, that each time he introduces me to a new Chinese official, his description of the size and prestige of the Express is ratcheted up a notch. In other circumstances, I might mistrust such flattery; looking at Pang's anxious face, though, it seems clear he is simply very eager to help all of us--hapless, self-deprecating Americans that we are--make a better first impression. At one point, Emmanuelson casually mentions the $26-million vet hospital at the San Diego Zoo; we have nothing that lavish, she says. It's soon clear that to Pang, though, this kind of off-handed comment is not a good idea. "We can't present ourselves as just a piddling little zoo," he will later explain. "One of the conditions is, are these guys for real --do they have the funding? Is it going to be world-class? I've spent so much time and money on this--we've got to show we're for real."

As we navigate tricky cultural differences, global politics also begin to edge their way into the picture. We've been continually reassured that tensions between heads of state are unlikely to interfere with the progress of the panda project--"By and large our activities are below the radar," USFWS' Stansell told me. But the recent American spy plane incident is obviously still on many people's minds, and the meeting with the wildlife association was prefaced by a discussion with the delegation's host at the Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, Li Xiaolin. She speaks candidly about the harmful effect that outside pressure could have on China's ongoing reform: "We have learned a lot from foreign countries, but if they try to impose their own values, this will be impossible for the Chinese people to accept. If we are going to change our system, it is the matter of Chinese people." I am reminded of several conversations I've had with street vendors and hotel clerks, who refer to our current president as "Small Bush." "When Big Bush was an ambassador to China before he became president, the Chinese people nursed Small Bush in Beijing," one official says. "The Chinese people cannot understand why he is turning his back on us now."

It's a relief to turn our attention back to fluffy, adorable pandas--and before long, we discover just how lovable the giant bears can be. We drive to the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Center, a lush oasis of green amid the brown flatlands that surround Chengdu. On the quiet, bamboo-lined paths we see park workers carrying water barrels from wooden yokes across the shoulders, and pass a smooth pond echoing with bird calls. The air is also punctuated by chatter in English--this is a popular backpacker and ecotour stop. Together, we ooh and ah over a group of grown pandas eating bamboo al fresco while they loll on their backs, but then comes an unexpected treat: we are invited into the panda nursery, where, for a small donation, we're invited to hold a baby panda in our arms. The zoo vets consider the animal welfare at stake here, concluding that since these animals are being hand-raised, more human contact now will actually help reduce stress later in life. And indeed, the roly-poly little thing couldn't be enjoying himself more, it seems--he wants to play with each new visitor. When Bobb is handed a baby panda to sit in his lap, it's clearly the city manager, not the endangered species, who is feeling uncomfortable. But even Bobb is won over; as his assistant Griffith says, "Okay, Mr. Chang. You win." Chang is grinning from ear to ear--whatever else his goals in pursuing a panda, there's no doubt his professed love of the endangered species is genuine.

Most of the Oakland city officials have caught a plane back home by the time we head off to our afternoon meeting with the Chengdu-based Wildlife Conservation Division of the Sichuan Forestry Department. Parrott's hopes that here the technical team will have a shot at assuming leadership of the project--and independence from the city's commercial goals. "We are not politicians, we are technical researchers," he tells director and senior engineer Deng Xiangsui. "Our greatest intent is to help you preserve pandas."

Deng gives the Oakland scientists our first real glimpse of exactly what kind of investment China is expecting--and how it might spend that money. While Chang had suggested months ago that perhaps Oakland could avoid the million-dollar yearly donation by building and maintain a state-of-the-art research center in China, Deng makes it clear that those yearly donations are still desperately needed--in addition to a scientific facility. "Your proposal has something unique--helping China build a modern, high-level research center here," Deng says. "But in order to preserve existing habitat--and to restore some vital habitat--we need to promote community development and stop poaching." His department needs vehicles, guard posts, training for preserve staff to monitor and survey the existing panda population, and the resources to "create good public relations with the communities around the preserve." And Deng suggests a deadline to work towards: Since the USFWS will visit in the fall, having a detailed agreement signed with Oakland by that time would be most convenient.

Talking with Deng provides a major influx of information--just the kind of thing the scientists were hoping for. It leaves them excited--but not without jitters. What if they work overtime for months preparing a detailed proposal, only to find out their counterparts in the city haven't raised enough money? Can they focus on developing a plan that will really be best for panda conservation--or will politics get in the way? I hear someone mutter under his breath, "Sure, pandas are cute--but they're also a lot of work."

Latest in Feature

Author Archives

  • Head 'Em Up, Move 'Em Out!

    Are the cattle grazing in the regional parks creating a profound, environmental mess as activists contend, or are they a living symbol of the grand -- and fading -- tradition of ranching in the hills?
    • Nov 14, 2001
  • Think Global, Dredge Local

    Oakland port snares a new tenant and plans for the future
    • Oct 24, 2001
  • More»

News Blogs

Most Popular Stories

Special Reports

The Beer Issue 2020

The Decade in Review

The events and trends that shaped the Teens.

Best of the East Bay


© 2021 Telegraph Media    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation