Take a leisurely stroll along the Maharajah Jungle Trek at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in the Walt Disney World Resort and you’ll encounter many of Asia’s exotic animal inhabitants from the Komodo dragon of Indonesia to the Bengal tigers of India. What you won’t find, however, are the coveted giant pandas of China.
As rare as they are in the wild (with a count of around 1600), they’re even rarer in zoological parks. Zoos in less than ten countries exhibit them and in the United States, only four zoos have them on display: the National Zoo in DC, Zoo Atlanta in Georgia, the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee and the San Diego Zoo in California. Perhaps more shocking than their rarity is the price at which they come. Each of these institutions pay a minimum of $1M per year for a pair of adult pandas with a standard contract length of ten years. That amount is then doubled as money is contributed to China for panda wildlife preservation and research as dictated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has mandated that at least 50% of the fees goes to research in order for a zoo in the U.S. to import pandas.
If the zoo is lucky in that the pandas mate and produce a cub (a feat that’s so famously near impossible that artificial insemination has become the norm), the annual fees to China increase by $600,000 and the cub is property of the Chinese government, and soon ‘returned.’ Add to that the initial expense of building the habitat and the ongoing care and maintenance and it becomes an immediate financial challenge for many zoos that rely on park admissions and donations to keep operations at full steam.
Of course this certainly wouldn’t be as much an issue for Disney Parks and Resorts (aside from Disney’s Animal Kingdom being nahtazu) and in many ways, it seems like a natural and perfect fit. So we ask: where are the pandas?
At this point, we can only presume there are political concerns. Not Disney-China relations, but Disney-United States relations. Given that pandas are a primary source of tourism for the few zoos that do have them, adding them to the most visited theme park resort in the world would most certainly prove detrimental to the other zoos to some extent, so it may be that there are some ‘exclusivity’ concerns being tossed about. Also worth noting is that in the grand scheme of things, Disney is still the cub in the family when it comes to exhibiting animals in the zoological arena.
Still, it’s hard to ignore that Disney has been wooing China and its people in overt and covert ways with more prominence as time goes by. Given the well publicized non-successes of Hong Kong Disneyland, The Walt Disney Company has focused serious attention on China (in addition to India and Russia) over the past few years. The company has produced localized films (such as China’s Trail of the Panda by mere coincidence) and introduced syndicated and original local Disney Channel content. In China in particular, where Disney-brand recognition has been a struggle, the company has opened Disney English, a chain of schools that teach English to Chinese youth while equipping them with strong knowledge of Disney characters and, in a further attempt to reach out to the people, is now incorporating Chinese lore and characters into its theme parks.
Now, with the recent news that Disney will be opening an Animal Kingdom park in addition to Disneyland and Epcot at Shanghai Disneyland, the missing element becomes that more obvious. Could Disney be using an Animal Kingdom annex to prove to the Chinese government once and for all that it is more than capable when it comes to the care and feeding of one of the country’s national treasures?