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Panda in China. Picture: George Lu

Panda in China. Picture: George Lu

Ähtäri zoo is currently negotiating with China over the loan of two giant pandas, beginning in 2017. Discussions are ongoing and final agreements are to be made in the spring. Finnish and Chinese authorities have come to an agreement about the transfer of pandas from China to Finland,  although official contracts have not been signed yet. Suomen Eläinsuojeluyhdistyksen liitto ry (SEY), Finnish Federation for Animal Welfare Associations, is calling on Ähtäri zoo to consider whether bringing the pandas to Finland is the correct move in their press release yesterday.

“It is questionable if giant pandas can adapt to Finnish conditions. Ähtäri zoo should carefully consider whether they can provide the pandas on loan the correct environment. SEY’s view is that it is not possible” says executive director of SEY, Maria Lindqvist.

Jaana Husu-Kallio, from the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, told Helsingin Sanomat on Thursday that China has assured there are no  obstacles for getting giant pandas to Finland in 2017 when the country celebrates the 100th anniversary of its independence. Husu-Kallio, who believes that Finns would be delighted to see giant pandas, said that Finland has pledged to provide the pandas with the best possible conditions available outside China in terms of animal well-being. Ahtäri Zoo is the second largest in Finland, and was founded in 1973. Only last year it received a red panda, which shares the same habitat as giant pandas in China. Husu-Kallio from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry said that giant pandas would be a boost to tourism to Finland, attracting visitors from Russia and other Nordic countries.

However, SEY states that a giant panda’s natural environment is different from the weather conditions in Finland, and that they would have to spend the winters indoors. The staple of their diet is unable to be produced in Finland, and it would have to be imported from China at a cost. In addition, their travel to Finland is also considered a risk: it is difficult to ensure their well-being over thousands of kilometres in transit from China to Finland. SEY also questions bringing pandas to Finland for the conservation of the species. “Pandas should be helped to live closer to their natural habitat. Animals living in captivity can not be returned to nature, and they can be used to increase their numbers in nature. Nor can the species can easily reproduce in captivity,” Maria Lindqvist said.

Pandas, considered a symbol of China, are loaned on the proviso that Chinese approve the pandas’ living conditions at the selected zoo. In the case of Edinburgh zoo reported by The Guardian in 2014, pandas were rented from the Chinese government for 10 years and the contract stipulated that Edinburgh must pay £600,000 a year for the pair. Any cub that is born must be returned to China after two years. Furthermore, should one die because of human error, it was understood that the zoo must pay £300,000. In addition, it was also argued that Pandas can be used in trade relations. World Resources Institute researcher Kathleen Buckingham stipulated that “A new phase of panda diplomacy is under way. Panda loans are associated with nations supplying China with valuable resources and symbolise China’s willingness to build trade relationships.” The increasing loan of pandas has also coincided with the 2008 magnitude eight Sichuan earthquake, which destroyed much of the animals’ habitat and the main panda conservation centre. China was left with a surplus of captive pandas, without the facilities to hold them.

In the World Wildlife Fund’s latest census (2014), it was found that there were 1.864 giant pandas alive in the wild. While it is still a low number, the number have been increasing from approximately 1000 in the late 1970s. In the past decade, giant panda numbers have risen by 17 percent.  Ähtäri zoo’s CEO Juhani Haapaniemi , who visited one of the panda conservation bases in Sichuan in February, said he believes giant pandas can adapt well to Finnish conditions which are similar to the pandas’ natural habitat.