Pandaplomacy! Eats shoots and helps ease global tension

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The diplomatic gift of exotic animals has a noble if sometimes bloody history

They're podgy, hairy, and spend all day eating lunch. Yes, pandas make the perfect diplomats. That was the discovery made by the People's Republic of China in the 1950s, when they started lending pairs of bears to whichever country happened to be in favour. Actually, bear-mail dates to the Tang dynasty, when the Empress Wu Zetian sent a pair to the Japanese Empress; but the explosion in "pandaplomacy" is a modern phenomenon.

It worked best with America, notably when Richard Nixon's 1972 visit secured the loan of Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing. He sent back a pair of musk oxen, so-called because they emit a powerful smell.

Britain has been blessed, too, with Edward Heath securing Chia-Chia and Ching-Ching in 1974. Tradition dictates that host nations encourage breeding, though it rarely succeeds. Nixon's bears did manage five cubs, though none survived more than a few days.

If bear care is a barometer of foreign relations, things have been a bit grizzly for Britain of late. It is 17 years since we were last given the honour. Happily, that all changes today, when Tian Tian and Yang Gang land at Edinburgh airport, taking up residence at the city zoo.

December hardly seems the kindest month to introduce them to Britain; but Scotland has a similar climate to Sichuan Province, where most pandas, including these two, come from. Any identity crisis they are likely to suffer will not be made easier by the decision to translate their names to the English, Sweetie and Sunshine. Sunshine's a boy's name, apparently. The good news is they are being given their own compounds, with separate his'n'hers quarters, complete with a cave, climbing tree and pond.

Zoo-keepers are praying the bamboo-munching marsupials – no, they are not actually bears – will approve of their £250,000 new home, as they can be rather fussy.

The last panda-on-loan arrived in 1994 and was a diplomatic disaster, as Ming Ming refused to breed with Bao Bao, flown in specially from Berlin. She just didn't fancy him. They got into a fight and both were sent home in disgrace. Ming Ming died in May, aged 34, far outliving the 22-year expected lifespan of a captive panda. She was the oldest panda ever recorded.

Panda-lending's peak years were from 1958 to1982, when China packed off 23 pandas to nine countries. Never mind that they often ended up leading miserable lives caged in obscure foreign zoos – the gesture worked, and the receiving countries were always grateful for the extra revenue zoo visits generated. But while pandas have become the symbol of animal diplomacy, they are just one of the breeds from the diplomatic ark. Here, we guide you through the history of international horse-trading.

Wives and tigers

Henry III was one of the first monarchs to be given a foreign pet. In 1235, he married Eleanor of Provence and was rewarded with three leopards by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. They were a perfect match for the royal crest. They were sent to the Tower of London for safe-keeping and, over the years, it became quite a menagerie. A lion was next, followed by a polar bear in 1252, a gift from Norway's King Haakon IV. They put it on a long leash and let it catch its own breakfast in the Thames.

Trunks and drunks

The biggest animal to live at the Tower was a male African elephant, donated by Louis IX of France in 1255. It arrived by boat and had a 40ft-long house built for it out of wood by the Sheriffs of London, who later converted it into a prison cell. They gave it wine to drink, so he was permanently drunk, bouncing off the walls. As the zoo grew, it was opened to the public, who had never seen such animals before. Those who couldn't afford the three-pence entry fee could pay by cat or dog, which were fed to the lions.

Tooth and claw

"Mad" George III was given a grizzly bear called Martin by the Hudson Bay Company. He also got a cheetah from India, courtesy of the Governor of Madras, Sir George Pigot, in 1764. The king had enough on his plate, so he passed the cheetah to his uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, who was ranger of Windsor Park. He decided to use the opportunity to find out how cheetahs attack their prey, so he put it in a pen with a stag: to his surprise, the stag tossed the cheetah into the air, after which the big cat ran away. A painting of the incident by George Stubbs hangs in the Manchester Art Gallery.

Tall stories

The least successful animal gift is the giraffe – though scoring high on the wow factor, they tend to die soon after arrival. George IV was given one by the Pasha of Egypt in 1827, who also sent one to Paris and Vienna. Each caused a sensation, though only Charles X's managed to survive. A giraffe given to Lorenzo de Medici in 1486 by the ruler of Egypt became a Florentine celebrity, appearing in paintings by Ghirlandaio and Vasari. Special heated stables were built to protect it, but its head became stuck in the beams and it broke its neck.

Show-off

Queen Elizabeth II has probably received more animals than any other monarch, as our map shows. But she never keeps them at home, passing them on to zoos. The Tower of London zoo was closed by the Duke of Wellington in 1831, which is probably just as well: unhappier animals included the ostriches who were fed iron nails, and the lions and tigers who managed to slip their cages and eat each other. James I once borrowed a lion to show off his mastiffs: they savaged the poor beast in the park. On another occasion, an American Indian was exhibited alongside storks and a beaver.

Ming dynasty

Britain's first panda was Ming, who arrived in 1938, but she liked to keep a low profile, and never achieved celebrity status. The first star panda was Chi Chi, who came in 1958 and stayed until her death 14 years later. Initially, she was scheduled to stay only three weeks, but such was her popularity that she was bought for £12,000. Peter Scott used Chi Chi for his well-known WWF logo. Attempts to mate her with Moscow Zoo's An An came to nothing, and she died childless in 1972.

Panda-ing to the masses

Pandas are now big business. Although China's gesture represents an improvement in relations, some say the deal is all about money. Far from being a "loan", the bears are actually being rented for £600,000 a year. The zoo plans to recoup the money by charging £12,000 a pop for corporate visits. The pandas are also expected to increase visitor numbers by 70 per cent. Not that anyone should expect too much excitement: pandas sleep for ten hours a day and spend the rest of the time eating. Oh, and they defecate up to 40 times a day. Still, they are probably more fun to watch than most diplomats.

Additonal reporting by Tom Stevenson

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