China’s famous “Panda diplomacy” faces a test after a bear in Taiwan suffers a brain injury.
The Taipei Zoo told CNN on Thursday that it had asked Chinese experts to help treat giant panda Tuan Tuan after an MRI revealed damage.
They are hoping for help to treat Tuan Tuan, who began behaving abnormally after losing his appetite and suffering a three-minute seizure in late August.
But the request raises the prospect of a delicate diplomatic balancing act, as relations between China and Taiwan have soured since US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the self-governing island in August.
China considers Taiwan part of its territory, although it has never ruled it, and has vowed to “reunite” with the Chinese mainland, if necessary by force. Since Pelosi’s visit, he has stepped up pressure on the island with a series of military exercises on his doorstep.
Now animal lovers from both sides of the Taiwan Strait will be watching to see how the zoo responds to demand.
Tuan Tuan and his partner Yuan Yuan were gifted to Taiwan by China in 2008 as a goodwill gift from Beijing, part of a long-standing practice known as “panda diplomacy”.
But the two animals, whose combined names form the Chinese word for “reunion,” were also a subtle political expression of the Communist Party’s approach to Taiwan.
There have been some signs that Beijing is ready to extend its olive branch. Zhu Fenglian, a spokesman for mainland China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said the Taipei Zoo had notified the Giant Panda Protection Research Center in Chengdu, Sichuan Province of Tuan Tuan’s condition. And the state news China Daily reported on Wednesday that Chinese experts were ready to provide technical support to the zoo and help the animal.
A spokesman for the Taipei Zoo said the help would be “very welcome”, but Chinese experts “have not specified whether they intend to send experts here this time”.
The spokesperson said previously, “both sides have been working closely together on the conservation of giant pandas” and “regularly exchange knowledge”.
“In the past, when the panda gave birth, they even sent experts to help us,” added the spokesperson.
Since being gifted to Taiwan, Tuan Tuan and his partner Yuan Yuan have given birth to two cubs, one in 2013 and the other in 2020.
In a statement, the zoo said Tuan Tuan was “recovering under observation behind the scenes” and that “it is necessary to wait for all the test results before clarifying the cause. [of his illness]”.
The average lifespan of pandas in the wild is 14-20 years, but they can live much longer in captivity, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. Tuan Tuan turned 18 in August.
In July, the world’s oldest male giant panda in captivity, named An An, died in captivity at Hong Kong’s Ocean Park. He was 35 years old.
In 2017, the International Union for Conservation of Nature upgraded the species from “endangered” to “vulnerable”, after the population had grown by almost 17% in the previous decade. This move was mirrored by the Chinese government last year, when the population of wild giant pandas rose to 1,800.
Breeding giant pandas in captivity is very difficult, but after years of decline, their numbers in the wild have risen in recent years.