Taiwan zoos in fierce competition for China pandas
By Ralph Jennings
TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan zoos are caught up in a ferocious competition to win a pair of pandas from China, now that their country has a new Beijing-friendly president.
Four zoos and parks in Taiwan have written proposals, blown millions of dollars on facilities or at least expressed interest in adopting Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, a panda duo offered by China as a gesture of goodwill to push its unification agenda.
China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949, and Beijing has threatened to use force if the island formally declares statehood.
Over the past three years, Beijing has taken measures to make a friendlier impression on Taiwan's public. The pandas, whose names said together mean "unite," were first offered in 2006, and China has indicated the offer still stands.
Taiwan's government under the current China-hostile President Chen Shui-bian has all but banned the pandas, but president-elect Ma Ying-jeou has said he would welcome them. Agricultural authorities would decide who gets them, zoo operators say.
"The domestic competition is pretty intense," said John Feng, a campaign aide to Ma, who takes office on May 20. "If there's a panda in your zoo, that increases visitor traffic."
Taipei's city zoo, which has spent T$200 million on equipment and a 765-square-metre panda facility, is competing on its management and healthcare expertise.
Another competitor is the privately run Leofoo Village Theme Park in Hsinchu County of northern Taiwan. Leofoo has sent a team to the Wolong China Giant Panda Research Centre in Sichuan province to study the bears and spent T$100 million ($3.26 million) to prepare for them.
Both parks face a bid by a yet-to-be built, 2,000-ha animal park in the city of Taichung, which says its central location is most accessible to visitors from all over Taiwan.
A private theme park near Kaohsiung, the major city in southern Taiwan, also wants the pandas, Feng said.
(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)