If funding is not found by the end of February, the Ähtäri Zoo in Finland will be forced to return two giant pandas Lumi and Pyry to China.
Beijing had “lent” them five years ago, a few months after President Xi Jinping’s visit to Helsinki on the occasion of the centenary of Finnish independence.
The loan of pandas is a classic diplomatic tool of the Chinese, who have been using it for decades to ensure a good image return. Giant pandas, native to central China, are no longer at risk of extinction since 2021: they are now “only” a vulnerable species. However, it is believed that in total there are no more than a thousand.
Lumi and Pyry’s loan is expected to expire in ten years, but it is proving to be economically unsustainable. The private company that manages Ähtäri Zoo was counting on the two specimens to increase the number of visitors; however, the pandemic blew up all the calculations and the zoo began to accumulate debts linked to the high costs of maintaining the animals – including a figure of around one million euros a year which must be paid to China.
The Helsinki government had allocated two hundred thousand dollars in 2021 and was about to grant a further funding of five million, but it backed down; some members of parliament noted that the outlay would be higher than what Finland spent to protect some of the country’s endangered species.
A working group on the issue was formed, including representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Agriculture and Forestry. Helsinki’s fear is that the return of the two pandas will be perceived by the Chinese regime as a hostile gesture and therefore there may be repercussions from a commercial or diplomatic point of view.
After all, Finland itself is gradually reviewing its relations with China, based for decades on the pragmatic search for mutual economic benefits. Human rights violations and Beijing’s growing international assertiveness are leading the Scandinavian country to approach – albeit slowly – the anti-China positions of the United States.
Ähtäri Zoo has begun preparations for the return of the two giant pandas to China, but will wait until February 28 before making a decision.