Bear Necessity: Why has Taiwan sought China’s help for its giant panda?

Tuan Tuan is suffering from a life-threatening brain lesion. The 18-year-old giant panda, along with his partner Yuan Yuan, was a gift from China to Taiwan in 2008 as part of its ‘panda diplomacy’

FP Explainers September 30, 2022 17:51:28 IST
Bear Necessity: Why has Taiwan sought China’s help for its giant panda?

Tuan Tuan, an 18-year-old giant panda in Taiwan, is suffering from a life-threatening brain lesion. Image: Twitter/@san_taiwan

Amid rise in tensions with Beijing after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August, Taiwan has sought China’s help for the treatment of giant panda.

Taipei Zoo housing the bear, Tuan Tuan, has appealed for help from experts in China after a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan revealed the panda has a life-threatening brain lesion, reports CNN.

As per China Daily, experts in the mainland country have expressed keenness to provide technical support and assistance for the giant panda’s treatment.

The 18-year-old bear, along with his partner Yuan Yuan, was a gift from China to Taiwan in 2008 as part of its ‘panda diplomacy’.

How did Tuan Tuan’s illness come to light? What is China’s panda diplomacy?

Let’s have a closer look:

What happened to Tuan Tuan?

The zoo staff in Taipei noticed Tuan Tuan behaving ‘abnormally’ in late August.

On 23 August, the panda had a three-minute seizure, which the zoo thought was due to epilepsy.

Tuan Tuan lost his appetite and white foam appeared around his mouth, reports CGTN.

However, an MRI scan in September showed Tuan Tuan had local large-scale necrosis and edema on the left side of its brain, zoo veterinarian Cheng Chiu-hung informed.

“The left cerebral lobe and posterior lobe have local large-scale necrosis and surrounding edema, and the right cerebral lobe has local small-scale edema,” Cheng was quoted as saying by Taipei Times.

She said they are waiting for the results of a fluid analysis before deciding the course of treatment for the bear.

Given Tuan Tuan’s age, such a brain condition is “considered very serious”, Cheng added.

As per CGTN, an 18-year-old panda would be about 50 to 60 years old in human terms.

Tuan Tuan was “recovering under observation behind the scenes” and it was “necessary to wait for all test results before clarifying the cause (of his illness)”, the zoo’s statement was cited by CNN.

Zookeeper Chen Yu-yan said the giant panda has recovered about “90 per cent of his appetite and daily activity level”, reports Taipei Times.

What has China said?

Zhu Fenglian, a spokeswoman for mainland China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said that Taipei Zoo alerted the Giant Panda Protection Research Center in Chengdu, Sichuan province of Tuan Tuan’s illness, reports China Daily.

Zhu also said her office was also ready to provide assistance and experts in China are ‘concerned’ about the giant panda.

In response, a Taipei Zoo spokesperson said they would “very much welcome the help”, but added that Chinese experts “haven’t specified whether they intend to send any experts here this time”, CNN reported.

The spokesperson said China and Taiwan have earlier “cooperated closely to care for the giant pandas,” and “regularly exchange knowledge.”

China also sent experts when Tuan Tuan and his partner Yuan Yuan birthed two cubs, one in 2013 (Yuan Aai) and another in 2020 (Yuan Bao), as per CNN. 

When China sent pandas to Taiwan

As part of its ‘panda diplomacy’, China sent four-year-olds Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan to Taiwan in 2008. When the pandas’ names are taken together, it means ‘unite’.

The giant pandas were first offered by China to Taiwan as a ‘goodwill’ gesture in 2005. However, it was declined by the then Taiwan president, Chen Shui-bian, whose Democratic Progressive party (DPP) backs independence for Taiwan.

The relations between China and Taiwan improved after Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou was elected as the president of the island.

On the pandas sent to Taiwan, Brad Glosserman, executive director of the US-based think tank Pacific Forum CSIS, told Reuters, “it’s clearly part of the longer rapprochement, a nice symbol”.

Beijing has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since 1949. It sees Taiwan as a part of its ‘one China’ policy, which is opposed by many on the island.

China’s panda diplomacy

With their natural habitat limited to China, giant pandas have long been a part of Beijing’s “diplomatic overtures”, notes The Guardian.

China has been offering pandas as gifts since the Tang Dynasty in the seventh century when Empress Wu Zeitan sent two bears to Japan, Doha News reports.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) revived the panda gifting trend under Mao Zedong’s regime. In 1957, China gave the erstwhile Soviet Union ‘Ping Ping’ to cement their ties.

During the Cold War, China gave pandas to Russia and North Korea.

The United States also received a pair of bears following the historic visit of then President Richard Nixon to China in 1972.

In the 1980s, China shifted its stance from gifting to loaning pandas to nations around the world after the bear became endangered. As per reports, the host nations have to pay up to $1 million per year for the panda loaned on a 10-year renewable basis.

Last year, China upgraded the status of the giant panda from “endangered” to “vulnerable” after their population grew to 1,800, reports CNN.

Bear Necessity Why has Taiwan sought Chinas help for its giant panda

China classified wild giant pandas as ‘vulnerable’ last year. AFP (Representational Image)

Recently, China announced to extend the panda diplomacy to Qatar by gifting two giant pandas in honour of the FIFA World Cup being hosted by the Gulf nation, reports Doha News.

The bears– ‘Suhail’ and ‘Soraya’– will reach Qatar in October before the tournament in November, Zhou Jian, China’s ambassador to Doha, said.

As per experts, pandas act as goodwill ambassadors and help ‘soften’ China’s authoritarian image in the world.

With inputs from agencies

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