True – Prime Minister John Key does lead a conservative government. But trying to curry favour by hiring a couple of giant pandas from his Chinese mates for Wellington Zoo seems a lurch into the prehistoric. It’s chimp birthday party stuff.
It’s also old hat. Auckland Zoo did it all decades ago – hosting Xiao Xiao and Fei Fei for three months of ‘pandamania’ between October 1988 and January 1989.
China sent the two pandas to Melbourne and Sydney to mark Australia’s bicentenary celebrations and was somehow sweet-talked into giving them a stop-over in Auckland as well.
It cost an eye-watering $500,000 to arrange and promote the panda visit but these costs were quickly recouped with visitor numbers exceeding 420,000.
In 2010 Mr Key decided to try to repeat this exercise in panda diplomacy and offered Auckland Zoo first right of refusal if he could jack up another loan.
The zoo politely declined on the grounds that ‘black and white pandas are not in our collection plan’. That was when Wellington jumped in.
At the time, proponents pointed to how Adelaide Zoo’s visitor numbers jumped 70 per cent in six months after its two pandas arrived.
But Adelaide’s visitor bubble came at a cost of nearly $10 million for a new enclosure – and another $16 million ‘lease’ on the pandas for their ten-year visit.