September 23, 2015

Giant Pandas too Expensive for Malaysia?

Kuala Lumpur Zoo’s two giant pandas have just had a baby.  They’ve only been in Malaysia 15 months, which makes their coupling the fastest panda birth ever achieved in captivity.

The occasion was cause for much celebration, but comes with a high price tag.  The pandas are on loan from China, who still technically owns them, and as per the loan agreement Malaysia has to pay US$600,000 to China for each panda cub that is born there.  Any panda birth is good for the species’ survival, but is this kind of spending wise for a Malaysia in economic peril?

Detractors of the panda situation say that it’s not, and they have good evidence.  Malaysia spent RM25 million (US$28 million) on the enclosure these giant pandas live in.  It also costs around RM60,000 ($14,000) every month to house, feed and otherwise take care of the two (now three) animals.  On top of it all, Malaysia doesn’t get to keep the panda that was born – it must be returned to Chengdu after two years.  These costs far outstrip the proceeds the KL zoo makes from exhibiting the pandas, and have actually resulted in a ‘viewing fee’ many people in the country can’t afford.

The panda millions could be otherwise spent developing Malaysia’s infrastructure, enforcing environmental law, educating its youth so that they can work the high-tech jobs being created locally or protecting Malaysia’s own wildlife from deforestation.  Is it worth that cost to host two admittedly adorable but very expensive giant pandas?

Government figures defend the deal, saying the pandas will raise environmental awareness and that they reinforce important ties to China.  Malaysia was ‘given’ Xing Xing (which quite ironically means ‘prosperity’) and Liang Liang (pretty) to commemorate 40 years of strong diplomacy between China and Malaysia.  This sort of ‘panda diplomacy’ is highly sought after, but what was forged in four decades likely does not depend on a single symbol of partnership.

Late last year New York City’s mayor refused – despite public encouragement – to pursue a similar panda loan with China.  The reason?  It costs about $1 million a year to lease one.  Malaysia is paying the same price.

What is too expensive for NYC is likely too expensive for Malaysia.  Though the pandas are beautiful and valuable creatures, the millions Malaysia is spending on them could go towards sustainable development and environmental protection.  Like many of the panda lease detractor’s agree, Malaysia’s government should think twice about continuing this agreement with China.

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