The sending of China's iconic bear is another milestone in ties with Malaysia
THE pandas are coming to the Wetlands Park in Putrajaya. It's there in black and white in the agreement signed between the Wildlife and National Parks Department and China Wildlife Conservation Association. Though it's unclear when the bamboo-eating bears unique to southwest China will actually arrive on our shores as no exact date has been set, the indications are that they will be present when we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with China. While this may seem a long wait for those eager to line up to watch the cuddly-looking creatures at close quarters, they just have to be patient. There's certainly a lot of work to be done to create the special environment that closely resembles their natural habitat in the mountains of China. For this reason, it's important that preparations begin in earnest to ensure the well-being of the pandas during their 10-year stay in the country.
Undoubtedly, building the special shelter, keeping them well-fed with bamboo shoots, and paying the fees, keepers and vets will make it an expensive affair. But as the experiences elsewhere suggest, pandas can be a huge draw to foreign tourists and domestic visitors. This means that gate collections, merchandising and sponsorship deals can help to offset the costs. More importantly, the diplomatic and economic returns far outweigh the costs of housing and feeding them. Undoubtedly, Sino-Malaysian relations have blossomed since Tun Abdul Razak's breakthrough visit to Beijing in 1974. Nevertheless, as China only sends its rare, endangered national treasures to a select number of countries, this is still a symbolically significant goodwill gesture. To be sure, China has stopped giving away pandas as diplomatic gifts and now only lends them for a decade. Malaysia is also not the first Asean country to be favoured in this way. Nevertheless, the decision to send the bears at a time when bilateral ties, especially on the trade and investment fronts, have never been better, is a clear sign of the importance that China places in taking its relations with Malaysia to a different and higher level.
Moreover, the black and white giant panda is one of the best known environmental symbols. This is not to say that wildlife conservation and education in this country should not be locally-driven. But neither should it be narrowly focused on the plight of local animals like the tiger and orang utan. In this regard, as one of the most iconic animals in the world, the panda is a boon in raising awareness about the threats to species and habitats.