In early February, a concerned Chinese netizen (@木Ei) posted photos and videos of a seemingly unhealthy and mouth-foaming panda at the Lanzhou Zoo (兰州五泉山动物园) in Gansu province, writing:
“Please help me forward this. Our ‘national treasures’ really receive unequal treatment. China Giant Panda Conservation Research Center, please get involved. The panda at Lanzhou Zoo is thin and filthy, with what looks like a skin condition on its back. It makes visitors really feel bad. Many zoos have no conditions to keep pandas, please take the pandas back and take good care of them. Don’t just use them to make a good picture while not treating all of our ‘national treasures’ as actual national treasures, it’s really heartbreaking!”
Photos of the panda went viral on February 13 after the female netizen forwarded her post to various media. Chinese state media outlet Global Times re-posted the woman’s post on their official account, saying: “We don’t understand, sending it forward to the experts at the China Giant Panda Conservation Research Center and the State Forestry Administration.”
“Probably the most miserable panda in the world.”
The giant panda is China’s most beloved animal; it the cultural symbol of China and is generally called a ‘national treasure’ (国宝). Its well-being and protection, both in the wilderness as in captivity, has been a state priority since the 1960s, when China’s first wild animal protection reserve focused on panda protection was opened in northern Sichuan (Wanglang Reserve, 1965) (Songster 2004, 110).
Apart from the pandas that are kept at China’s various panda reserves, there are also pandas at zoos across China, from Beijing to Chongqing, and from Guilin to Guangzhou. The zoo in Lanzhou has been keeping pandas for years, during which it has caused controversy multiple times.
Previously in 2013, 2015, and 2016, netizens posted photos of the apparent unhealthy pandas at the Lanzhou Zoo and expressed their concerns over their well-being.
In 2013 and 2015, social media users criticized the zoo’s conditions and shared photos of the seemingly dirty and skinny giant panda ‘Lanzai.’ Some netizens called him “probably the most miserable panda in the world”. But the zoo’s authorities soon denied that Lanzai was being neglected.
In 2016, netizens also expressed concerns when the fur of panda ‘Shulan’ (蜀兰) was blood-stained and discolored. Zoo staff explained that the panda had been treated by veterinarians after suffering a cut from a piece of bamboo, and stated that any accusations of maltreatment were ungrounded.
As the zoo’s conditions are now sparking controversy for the umpteenth time, many people are outraged and say that the Lanzhou Zoo is harming them and is simply not equipped to take care of pandas.
Some netizens point out that other animals in the Lanzhou Zoo, such as the bears and the lions, are also neglected and that their living conditions are below the mark.
Pandas abroad: “The waterfall was deemed ‘too noisy’ for the pandas.”
The Lanzhou Zoo controversy is especially noteworthy because China maintains strict regulations over the conditions for the pandas it sends abroad. A recent ‘panda diplomacy’ agreement with a zoo in the Netherlands illustrates just how strict the rules are to guarantee the well-being and utmost comfort for the Chinese pandas.
After negotiating for years, the renowned Dutch Zoo Ouwehands reached an agreement with the Chinese Wildlife Conservation Association in 2015 that it would receive two giant pandas for a period of maximum 15 years. Besides the annual funding the Zoo will contribute to the Wolong Giant Panda Centre, it spent over 7 million euros (±7.4M$/51.2MRMB) to build a special 3400 m² residence for the pandas.
The residence was inspected two times by a special delegation from China. Because the panda habitat was initially disapproved by the delegation, the pandas’ arrival was postponed for six months. When they checked the panda residence again in January of 2017, they approved it but did demand the removal of a waterfall that was deemed “too noisy” for the pandas.
Zoo director Robert de Lange told Dutch news that it is of utmost importance that the pandas feel comfortable, and that the Chinese inspectors also take the volume of sounds into consideration.
“How could you treat our national treasures this way?”
As strict as the panda habitat regulations for foreign countries may be, it seems that China’s Lanzhou Zoo is not held to the same standard.
On Weibo, netizens’ anger over the apparent negligence of the animals in Gansu’s Lanzhou is directed at both the China Giant Panda Conservation Research Center and the Lanzhou zoo staff: “The pandas are helping you make money, and this is how you treat them!”, one commenter writes: “I hope the authorities will see this on Weibo and rescue them.”
“I have been to the Lanzhou Zoo multiple times when I studied there, and the conditions are really terrible. How could you treat our national treasures this way?”, another person from Gansu writes.
Other netizens are now also posting more photos of the Lanzhou Zoo, writing: “I have been to Lanzhou Zoo today, and I saw the panda was skinny and had foam coming from its mouth – I first thought it were its fangs. I hope the relevant authorities can come and save this panda baby as soon as possible!”
Earlier this year, the China Giant Panda Conservation Research Center also received criticism when the first giant panda born in Shanghai and her mother both died.
The Research Center (@中国大熊猫保护研究中心) addressed the criticism on Weibo in January, thanking China’s ‘Panda Lovers’ for their concerns and asking them to stop posting abusive comments towards them and their employees: “We understand your love for the giant pandas, everyone here at the China Giant Panda Conservation Research Center loves them, but we all have our own way of expressing it. For you it means you raise your concerns by posting blogs in the middle of the night, for us it means that our employees work night shifts taking care of the pandas, watching the monitors and keeping records.”
They also stated that the center does everything it can within their power for the good of their “black and white babies.”
For now, neither the Center nor the zoo has responded to the Lanzhou panda controversy yet.
Songster, Elena. 2004. “A Natural Place for Nationalism : the Wanglang Nature Reserve and the Emergence of the Giant Panda as a National Icon.” Thesis/dissertation, University of California, San Diego.
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