The Great Oakland Panda Hunt

The search for increased international trade sometimes leads city officials into very exotic places--China's Wolong Giant Panda Preserve, for instance


We’re going on a panda hunt.

In 1920, when Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt, the first white men to kill a panda, went on their hunt, they brought rifles, shotguns, and 38-millimeter automatics in armpit holsters –but we’re bringing foil-wrapped gifts, artists’ renderings, and a camcorder. The Roosevelt brothers dreamt of shooting the elusive black and white bear and bringing its hide to the Smithsonian, but Oakland’s delegation hopes to lease a breeding pair of pandas who would be housed, studied, and exhibited at the Oakland Zoo. While the Roosevelts gathered a team of animal trappers, porters, and personal retainers, this group includes City Manager Robert Bobb, City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, Oakland Zoo Director Joel Parrott, and a mix of city deal-makers, consultants, and legal advisors. And while that 1920 expedition trekked overland from Bombay to Yunan, our itinerary will take us by plane to the northern port town Dalian, to central government offices in Beijing, and finally to Chengdu, the seat of the Sichuan provincial government and the base for expeditions to the high bamboo forests that most of the world’s few remaining pandas call home.

Why the complicated itinerary? Because in the 21st century, a panda hunt has as much to do with politics and global trade as it does with scientific research and conservation. “The most important part of this whole trip is to establish better cultural exchange and friendship through the pursuit of two pandas,” says Oakland Councilmember Henry Chang. “If you come and talk to the government and work with them to preserve the small population of pandas, they become very, very happy that you are trying to help them, and they usually open up their arms to also work with you about economic development, which is what we have done.”

Chang is the delegation’s fearless, dedicated, visionary–some might say obsessed–leader. The panda project is his baby; he initiated talks in China two years ago, won a letter of intent from the Wildlife Conservation Association, and called in old friendships with top-ranking Chinese officials to further the process.

He has a wealth of friendships to call upon. Born in China to a wealthy family, he spent years in prison during the Japanese occupation and later escaped to Hong Kong. His wife’s father was a national hero; the Communist Party honored him with a formal state funeral last year. Chang went on to study architecture at UC Berkeley and founded an urban design and development firm, working on projects in Oakland and in China.

Henry Chang looks–and acts–much younger than his 67 years: his Web page bio features quirky photos of a young Henry performing magic tricks, and a more recent shot of the man with his dog, and this sense of offbeat fun pervades his demeanor still. In the weeks leading up to the trip, he gleefully warns me that I’d better find someone to be my “designated drinker” unless I want to end up in a drinking contest with our Chinese hosts. “And don’t look at me!” he quips.

Chang has an irrepressible enthusiasm for the panda project–even the walls of his Oakland office are adorned with blown-up color photos highlighting the high jinks of the playful black-and-white animals–and sometimes this enthusiasm spills over into boosterism. I can’t help but wonder if his trust in personal relationships–a very Chinese characteristic, Chang tells me–leads him to keep expecting support that doesn’t materialize: one day he tells me he has plans to meet with Mayor Jerry Brown to discuss the formation of an influential board for the panda project; the next day he confesses that the meeting was canceled.

Certainly, few Oakland-boosters would stand in the way of bringing a pair of pandas to the city, but on the other hand, few have stepped forward to put in serious time on the project. If Chang succeeds, he’ll be a hero, helping to save the lovable panda while at the same time helping to put Oakland on the map for tourists in the US and for a potentially lucrative audience of businessmen in China. But as I sip kiwi juice in the posh lounge of Dalian’s upscale airport, waiting to meet the airplane that is bringing the Oakland delegation from Hong Kong (where city officials have spent a few days meeting with investors and conducting city business) I reflect that success is by no means assured.

Pandas–in Oakland? After years of rapacious poaching like that of the Roosevelts, and even more importantly the logging of vital habitat in China, there are only an estimated one thousand giant pandas left alive, and the black-and-white bears are among the most endangered large mammals in the world. Although biologically they are omnivores, pandas have developed a highly specialized diet of bamboo, and must eat thirty pounds a day of the leafy plant to survive. Moreover, breeding efforts of pandas in captivity have struggled, although there’s been a marked success this year. Relatively recently introduced to the West, pandas are a favorite around the world, but only three American zoos–the high-profile institutions at San Diego, Atlanta, and Washington, DC–currently house the endangered bears.

“It would be a real feather in our cap to be operating with that elite group,” comments the zoo’s Parrott, but in fact, the zoo would never have dreamed of making a bid for the giant panda on its own–it was Chang’s idea from the start. In the weeks before the trip, even panda-project supporters seem to wonder if Oakland is getting too big for its britches. An administrator from the UC Davis Vet school–which has agreed to partner with the zoo–tells me their executive dean has yet to be informed that he’s being sent on the trip. A zoo vet mentions that she’s been reluctant to ask the other three panda zoos for ideas on cooperative research since the Oakland panda project still feels so uncertain. And Applied Biosystems, the Silicon Valley genetics company Chang is hoping will join an Oakland-based panda research coalition, declines to send a representative on the trip, opting to wait for a more detailed proposal.

But there’s one group of Oaklanders who couldn’t be happier to send Chang and his delegation off on a panda hunt, no matter how quixotic it might be: port officials and other global trade interests. In fact, the Bay Area World Trade Center pitched in to help fund the trip (Chang is adamant that he will not spend city money on the project), because it believes that whether or not the group returns with pandas in tow, the quest itself will be good for Oakland’s bid to capture a larger piece of Pacific Rim trade.

“China’s all about building relationships, and so it always helps when you go there with high-level dignities,” explains Jose Duenas, executive director of the trade center. “When you’re dealing at that high level there’s more opportunity to work out deals or talk about areas where there’s problems. The more that Oakland gets out into the global marketplace, the better recognition that we’ll get as a city.” Plus, city administrators told me, it makes good business sense for the city to tag along with Chang whenever the Chinese-American councilmember makes a trip; Chang’s family connections alone give him an excellent reputation, and his years of friendship with many high-ranking Chinese merchants and government officials give Oakland a leg up.

The bustling coastal city of Dalian is a metropolis of five and a half million people and the largest export harbor in China; in 2002, it will celebrate its twentieth year as Oakland’s sister city. The delegation is here to reaffirm that decades-old friendship and to build the relationships that bring business; in fact, Oakland officials won’t mention the panda project at all when they meet with top-ranking Dalian officials.

The reception here is positive from the very moment the delegation steps off the plane. First there’s Chang, looking dapper and refreshed; he’s followed by fellow councilmember De La Fuente, whose irrepressible wit keeps us supplied with one-liners. His jokes seem always to be especially appreciated by Oakland lobbyist Lily Hu, who was invited along not only for her bilingual skills and her ties to potential donors, but also, I suspect, for her easy sociability. City Manager Bobb brings his own slightly acerbic brand of humor, as well as his energetic young assistant, Leisl Griffith. Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency chief, Bill Claggett, who looks ready for business, rounds out the group. We’re also joined by Jacob Robfogel, a former aide to Chang who now lives the ex-pat life in Bangkok and occasionally does consulting work for his old hometown. He will serve as translator, organizer, and jack-of-all-trades for this trip. An air-conditioned van whisks everyone off to the hotel in no time–thanks to the police escort that accompanies the delegation for the rest of our time in Dalian. As a police car leads the way, driving on the wrong side of the road when traffic blocks our path, De La Fuente gleefully eyes the flashing lights and intermittent siren ahead of us and asks Bobb with a chuckle if he could kindly arrange this kind of welcome each time the council president arrived at the airport back home.

The colorful, modern face of this seaside town begins to reveal itself on the broad boulevards that lead downtown. We pass large green squares complete with bold public sculptures, shiny new shopping complexes, and unit after unit of new housing. There are very few of the squat, jumbled courtyard buildings that give other Chinese cities like Beijing much of their character. Only one hundred years old, Dalian is well-planned and, for the most part, exquisitely manicured. Li Ning, the winning young administrator from the foreign affairs office who serves as our local interpreter, points out a 20,000-square-meter Wal-Mart shopping center; other parts of the city boast American- style housing subdivisions.

Dalian has been designated a “special economic zone” by the Chinese government, allowing it to welcome foreign investment and manufacturing. It could represent a significant piece of the growing Pacific Rim trade that Oakland is eager to capture. “China is going to be one of the largest growth opportunities for Northern California, as it goes into the WTO,” says Clement Chin, senior manager of marketing and business development for the Oakland port. “A lot of the businesses in Oakland, and Northern California, are really tied to trade, to the export market.” Even as the port ramps up for major expansion, competition is growing fiercer. “We’re going to expand our port to twice the size, so we have to work hard to make sure we have lots of containers coming in,” says Chang. “If we don’t work on it, someone else will, like Southern California or Seattle.”

Li and the Foreign Affairs deputy director, Zhao Wenhuai, have carefully arranged a detailed itinerary for the group, with meetings and banquets scheduled throughout our day. But there will also be a plentiful break at the five-star hotel for R&R–and, of course, an obligatory change out of the stretchy comfort clothes that only Americans wear, and into suits to match our Chinese hosts, who seem to work in business blue even on the weekend. (For Bobb and De La Fuente, business dress usually means rather hip, modified cowboy boots–a sartorial touch they’re both proud to display.) Leisl Griffith and I take this opportunity to pop out for a quick tour of the arts-and-crafts exchange next door, and when we’re just a minute late to meet in the lobby at the appointed time, I cringe. Bobb is even tardier and he doesn’t cringe in the slightest, but our Chinese hosts are noticeably nervous. They’ve arranged a meeting with the mayor of the city, the newly elected Li Yongjin. Once we pile in the van, our caravan sweeps past the soldiers who stand guard in front of all official buildings in China, and pulls up to the very front of City Hall. Hurrying upstairs to a meeting room lined in a thick, soft carpet, we find name cards marking seats for each of us on couches laid out in two facing rows, with De La Fuente and Li side by side at the head of the room.

The formal exchange of speeches goes well: both Li and De La Fuente, speaking through interpreters, stress cooperation, mutual respect, and the need to build on years of friendship. (Throughout our two days in Dalian, these formal exchanges with top officials take on a certain rhythm, and De La Fuente certainly is into the swing of it.) After a review of the long friendship between the two cities and a look toward the future of growth and cooperation, there is a brief trade-off of compliments and self-depreciation. De La Fuente tells a Chinese city official that Oakland has much to learn from the well-planned intersections and balanced roadside parks of Dalian. “Oh, no,” the Dalian official protests, “We are very disorderly.” When De La Fuente’s attempt at a light-hearted return–“If this is disorder, we’ll take your disorder any day”–proves too much for the young translator, lobbyist Lily Hu, wise in the ways of American irony, steps in to smooth the whole thing over.

But the real fun in this first meeting comes when Li suggests we step out to the balcony to enjoy the spring air. Oakland officials are delighted to discover that enjoying the spring air also means getting to play with what must be every politician’s dream toy: a remote-control device that allows the user to control a fountain in the square below. Bobb is urged to take the reigns at the control panel on the mayor’s balcony, and while Dalian businessmen enjoy a picnic lunch and elderly citizens gather for gossip around the quiet fountain, Bobb and De La Fuente push a few random buttons, eliciting a resounding rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” from the fountain’s loudspeakers and a magnificent arch of spray–which soaks any number of the hapless citizens enjoying the park.

It’s in the final moments of our visit with Mayor Li, in the formalities of leave-taking, that I get my best glimpse yet into how Oakland does business in Asia. It’s time for gift-giving. There had already been some behind-the-scenes scuffle over gifts –one was almost left behind in the van. The most important gift from Oakland to Dalian is definitely going to be late in coming: two Oakland black-and-white police cruisers will soon patrol Dalian’s broad avenues, complete with “Oakland” and “Dalian” clearly lettered on the sides. Councilmember Larry Reid is arranging the gift, and he expects to deliver the vehicles in person later this month. It’s part of a larger law-enforcement exchange that aims to share crime-fighting technology between the two cities, and although Chang had hoped the presentation would coincide with his visit, Dalian officials show no signs of irritation.

The next morning, the Oakland delegation is still finishing breakfast when the appointed departure time rolls around. This gives me a chance to chat with An Lin Bai, a Dalian businessman who, along with dozens of other Chinese investors, sank thousands of dollars into Oakland’s international trade center project. After several years, that money is still languishing–the city’s plans to use the abandoned uptown Bermuda Building were squelched last year by the building’s owners, and since then no one has been able to find a suitable space in the East Bay’s still-hot real estate market. “The investors here are waiting, and asking me, ‘What is going on?’ Bai complains. “We have many people here interested in doing business in Oakland, but for three years, nothing has happened.” He and his colleagues are a little frustrated, he admits–but definitely still interested.

It’s an apt conversation to set the tone for the day’s round of visits, which include stops at Dalian’s “Port and High-Tech Industrial Zone”–touted in its promotional literature as a “Northern Silicon Valley.” The high-tech zone, which includes an incubator for pioneers in genetic engineering and digital technology, was granted economic incentives by Beijing in 1991, and has attracted investment from nearly five hundred foreign companies. Needless to say, its directors hope Oakland officials will send more business their way; De La Fuente replies that it’s important to encourage investment not just from Oakland to Dalian, but also from Dalian to Oakland. As they tour the expansive grounds of the 35.6 square kilometer zone, Oakland officials wryly admire their Dalian counterparts’ ability to build with lightning speed, lamenting the drawn-out public-permit process that slows development back home. “Look at all this new housing,” Claggett points out. (Bobb, who tends to stay in the background during official meetings anyway, is not there for the tour. He’s arranged to spend the day golfing–and making important business contacts, as he says later.)

As the delegation’s stay in Dalian draws to an end and its meetings with wildlife officials in Beijing draws closer, my thoughts begin to turn to pandas. While the overall goal of this trip is expansion of Oakland’s role in global trade, it’s quite clear that the Oaklanders have their sights set on acquiring a panda pair–and failure over the next few days could mean a significant loss of face. As Duenas points out, “Not too many people have pandas. It would definitely give Oakland another notch to promote ourselves internationally.”

Clearly, Chang’s years of relationship-building have gone a long way, but the panda, surely, is even more important to China. The Chinese regard the highly endangered bears as a national treasure, and the once-common practice of donating pandas to allies as strategic and diplomatic gestures has given way to a highly regulated program that stresses habitat conservation and research. Today breeding pairs of captive-born pandas are sent to foreign zoos on long-term loan. These zoos, in turn, donate a million dollars a year each toward panda conservation in the wild. The zoos are also required to host Chinese scientists who collaborate with zoo vets on research into panda behavior, reproduction, and biology. Conservation advocates and wildlife promoters widely hail the reformed program as a great step toward saving the giant panda–but it means that any community interested in acquiring a panda has to be ready to pony up a significant sum. The Oakland Zoo is certainly not prepared to approach that fund-raising effort alone; the zoo’s entire operating budget is just $5 million a year. Plus, the zoo is just finishing a fifteen-year renovation and is preparing to launch another expansion to house a collection of California native animals; capital campaigns for those projects alone are keeping zoo staff plenty busy.

“One of the great challenges of this whole project will be the money,” Parrott concedes. “I think it’s realistic to expect that over a ten-year period, we’re looking at probably twenty million dollars–and it could easily be more than that. The most important part of this is a contribution of one million dollars per year toward the Chinese conservation effort, because that needs global support. Then there are other moneys involved: the management and upkeep of the giant pandas in the captive situation, the research projects, funding the researchers, which is really the purpose of the whole project in Oakland–all of that will probably approach two million a year total. And we have to build the research center first, too, and that could be anywhere from five to eight million. Plus, depending on how much extra staff and how much educational programming we’ll do, it could cause it to be even more expensive than that. Just looking at the bamboo farm alone could be daunting.”

The Oakland Zoo does have distinct advantages in the run for the pandas: it currently only uses 100 acres of the 525-acre Knowland Park, so there’s plenty of room to build panda runs to exact specifications, and Oakland’s mild climate would allow the animals to live in comfort outdoors without the restrictions of air-conditioning. But pandas in the Oakland hills would also attract a unprecedented number of visitors. The zoo currently hosts only 450,000 visitors each year. Compare that to Zoo Atlanta, where admission jumped from 850,000 to over one million a year since the introduction of its panda pair; the National Zoo marked the entrance of its one-millionth panda visitor after just five months.

When I talked with zoo leaders before the trip, no one was worried about crowd control, at least not yet. There are too many other daunting problems to be solved first. The city has already secured a letter of intent from China’s Wildlife Conservation Association, which oversees the panda program, but that was over a year ago, and significant work is needed to firm up that preliminary commitment before the wildlife association can even approach Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, who will have the final say. Meanwhile, on the home front, the US Fish and Wildlife Service oversees imports of exotic wildlife like pandas, and its official “Policy on Giant Panda Permits” is a thick, detailed document. “These are China’s pandas, and it’s their responsibility and their authority to conserve these animals in the wild–so nothing happens unless the Chinese are interested,” says USFWS acting assistant director for international affairs Kenneth Stansell. “But in order for us to issue that permit, we have to make a finding that the import of these animals actually contributes to the enhancement of the species in the wild. We require them to have in the application a very detailed research plan, both for in situ and field research, a blueprint of the facilities to house the pandas, and then whatever agreement has been negotiated with China.” Our first meeting in Beijing makes it clear that the Chinese believe Oakland has dropped the ball–at least so far–and for the city to recover lost ground now will require a major shift in the way it treats the whole idea. Joined now by the panda project’s technical team–zoo director Parrott, its director of veterinary services Dr. Karen Emmanuelson, and Dr. John Pascoe, executive associate dean of the UC Davis veterinary school–we troop into the offices of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, where we’re meeting with Li Zheng Fung, a top representative from the Wildlife Conservation Association.

The Chinese official’s inclination is toward politeness, and he specifically mentions the importance he places on his long friendship with Chang. But, when pressed by Parrott and Bobb, Li indicates that the wildlife association had hoped to hear a lot more from Oakland in the year that has passed since the provisional agreement was signed. He asks for detailed plans or a map of the zoo, suggests that Chinese scientists visit the Bay Area to evaluate the site, and recommends that Oakland establish a permanent representative in Beijing to report regularly to the wildlife association.

Peter Pang, an international law attorney and former East Bay resident who has been working behind the scenes to gather support for the project, later interprets the message from the meeting: “They’re going to allow at least two more pairs on international loan, and we’re in the running with two other cities. Last year, we were in the lead, but I think we’ve lost a little bit of our glamour; so we’re second place now behind Memphis. Our lack of substantive contact has not helped.”

Harsh words. As the group climbs back into the waiting van, there is clearly tension in the air. Bobb huddles with Chang, De La Fuente, and Griffith, calling for a staff meeting later in the evening. There is talk of dedicating full-time staff at the zoo and in city administration to furthering the project, and state-level political support is urged. “I focus on negotiating the close,” Bobb says, “and I know our roadmap now. That’s what I’m going to put together tonight–before I get back on an airplane, it’s going to be laid out. So when these guys get back, it’s going to be very clear.” In effect, Bobb is promising to transform the Oakland panda project from Henry Chang’s dream to a high-priority city initiative. This may help in some ways–Chang seems to have had difficulty rounding up Jerry Brown’s vital support for the fund-raising effort, for example–but even a concentrated, organized approach will have difficulty bridging the gaps in communication that have plagued the project so far.

In many ways, the project has suffered from a chicken-before-the-egg conundrum: how can the zoo design a proposal to present in China, before it knows what proposal the Chinese would be likely to accept? “We’ve done a rough conceptual plan, but we need more input from the Chinese side as to what they’d like to see,” Parrott says. “This whole program for giant panda preservation is really a Chinese program, and all Americans can do is help them along that line. We came as a fact-finding mission to find out just how we can help.” This conceptual gridlock cropped up again and again; Chang had told me before we left that he hasn’t been able to nail down donations of technology from key biotech firms because he hasn’t known what specific equipment to ask for; but without any real sense of the financial support backing the project, zoo vet Emmanuelson, who could end up being the lead American scientist in charge of the pandas’ welfare, was reluctant to pester colleagues at much larger zoos in the hopes of developing a complementary research program.

No matter how many bold promises city leaders may make, the one-year lapse of attention is bound to haunt the city’s panda-acquisition efforts–as it does when we reach Sichuan province, and Pang announces he cannot accompany the group on a morning tour of a panda breeding center since he’d promised not to return to the center unless he could bring a machine to make the pellets that supplement the bamboo diet of pandas in captivity with him as a gift. Why haven’t we found a donor to make this gift? everyone wonders out loud. “Within thirty days of returning home, I’ll have it for you,” De La Fuente promises.

The zoo staff seems to almost find relief in the meeting with the wildlife association representative. Parrott, in fact, calls it a good meeting, welcoming the directive to start the concrete work of forming a technical partnership with his Chinese counterparts. “The fact is, we couldn’t have advanced without their input,” he tells me as we ride to Beijing’s Capital Airport. “To go far without information from them would have been a mistake.”

Parrott is a tall, lanky man with an easygoing, straight-talking demeanor who is widely seen as the man who saved the Oakland Zoo. He took the reins in 1985, at a time when the zoo was infamous for some of the worst animal treatment in the country–and guided it through tough years, including one particularly dark season when an animal trainer was killed by an elephant on zoo grounds. Now the zoo features some of the most innovative animal-management programs in the country, and has been recognized with awards from animal-rights groups. Parrott is a polished spokesman for the zoo, but he also has frustrations with the political process–given a chance, he’ll eagerly steer the conversation away from strategy and negotiations, towards the dire need for conservation to slow the fearful pace of habitat loss and wildlife endangerment.

Despite the missteps that have plagued their efforts so far, Oakland officials have a big trump card. “We are not like the rest of the people who just want a panda for the zoo,” Chang told me months ago, “because we are looking at this as a research project. We have teamed up with UC Davis and biotech companies to find ways to preserve the dwindling population of pandas.” While the contributions from the biotech industry remain unclear, the rich research offerings of the vet school at Davis could save the day. “We’re looked at with a greater degree of interest than Memphis because we’re focusing on biotech,” Pang tells the group. “The one thing the Chinese really want out of this is training and technology, the kinds of things the Bay Area can offer.” As the largest public veterinary institution in the world, with a $7-million-per-year budget into genetic research and a wealth of teaching programs, Davis has a lot to offer.

That hypothesis will be tested in Chengdu, the seat of the provincial government of Sichuan, and the next stop on the itinerary. Here, the delegation first meets with the province’s vice-governor–an honor for the Oaklanders, one that Pang worries has not been fully appreciated when Bobb arrives more than ten minutes late for the formal meeting. “Now we’ve taken it to the provincial level, Henry,” Pang tells Chang after the meeting. “This is the point of no return.”

Pang has spent a lot of energy on this project, and his work as consultant on this trip, he tells me, is all pro-bono. Certainly, he’s hoping for some return on that investment–when the pandas come to Oakland, somebody will have to license all the merchandise, after all. But he’s clearly also personally invested in the project. This ambition leads him to exaggeration –I notice, for example, that each time he introduces me to a new Chinese official, his description of the size and prestige of the Express is ratcheted up a notch. In other circumstances, I might mistrust such flattery; looking at Pang’s anxious face, though, it seems clear he is simply very eager to help all of us–hapless, self-deprecating Americans that we are–make a better first impression. At one point, Emmanuelson casually mentions the $26-million vet hospital at the San Diego Zoo; we have nothing that lavish, she says. It’s soon clear that to Pang, though, this kind of off-handed comment is not a good idea. “We can’t present ourselves as just a piddling little zoo,” he will later explain. “One of the conditions is, are these guys for real –do they have the funding? Is it going to be world-class? I’ve spent so much time and money on this–we’ve got to show we’re for real.”

As we navigate tricky cultural differences, global politics also begin to edge their way into the picture. We’ve been continually reassured that tensions between heads of state are unlikely to interfere with the progress of the panda project–“By and large our activities are below the radar,” USFWS’ Stansell told me. But the recent American spy plane incident is obviously still on many people’s minds, and the meeting with the wildlife association was prefaced by a discussion with the delegation’s host at the Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, Li Xiaolin. She speaks candidly about the harmful effect that outside pressure could have on China’s ongoing reform: “We have learned a lot from foreign countries, but if they try to impose their own values, this will be impossible for the Chinese people to accept. If we are going to change our system, it is the matter of Chinese people.” I am reminded of several conversations I’ve had with street vendors and hotel clerks, who refer to our current president as “Small Bush.” “When Big Bush was an ambassador to China before he became president, the Chinese people nursed Small Bush in Beijing,” one official says. “The Chinese people cannot understand why he is turning his back on us now.”

It’s a relief to turn our attention back to fluffy, adorable pandas–and before long, we discover just how lovable the giant bears can be. We drive to the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Center, a lush oasis of green amid the brown flatlands that surround Chengdu. On the quiet, bamboo-lined paths we see park workers carrying water barrels from wooden yokes across the shoulders, and pass a smooth pond echoing with bird calls. The air is also punctuated by chatter in English–this is a popular backpacker and ecotour stop. Together, we ooh and ah over a group of grown pandas eating bamboo al fresco while they loll on their backs, but then comes an unexpected treat: we are invited into the panda nursery, where, for a small donation, we’re invited to hold a baby panda in our arms. The zoo vets consider the animal welfare at stake here, concluding that since these animals are being hand-raised, more human contact now will actually help reduce stress later in life. And indeed, the roly-poly little thing couldn’t be enjoying himself more, it seems–he wants to play with each new visitor. When Bobb is handed a baby panda to sit in his lap, it’s clearly the city manager, not the endangered species, who is feeling uncomfortable. But even Bobb is won over; as his assistant Griffith says, “Okay, Mr. Chang. You win.” Chang is grinning from ear to ear–whatever else his goals in pursuing a panda, there’s no doubt his professed love of the endangered species is genuine.

Most of the Oakland city officials have caught a plane back home by the time we head off to our afternoon meeting with the Chengdu-based Wildlife Conservation Division of the Sichuan Forestry Department. Parrott’s hopes that here the technical team will have a shot at assuming leadership of the project–and independence from the city’s commercial goals. “We are not politicians, we are technical researchers,” he tells director and senior engineer Deng Xiangsui. “Our greatest intent is to help you preserve pandas.”

Deng gives the Oakland scientists our first real glimpse of exactly what kind of investment China is expecting–and how it might spend that money. While Chang had suggested months ago that perhaps Oakland could avoid the million-dollar yearly donation by building and maintain a state-of-the-art research center in China, Deng makes it clear that those yearly donations are still desperately needed–in addition to a scientific facility. “Your proposal has something unique–helping China build a modern, high-level research center here,” Deng says. “But in order to preserve existing habitat–and to restore some vital habitat–we need to promote community development and stop poaching.” His department needs vehicles, guard posts, training for preserve staff to monitor and survey the existing panda population, and the resources to “create good public relations with the communities around the preserve.” And Deng suggests a deadline to work towards: Since the USFWS will visit in the fall, having a detailed agreement signed with Oakland by that time would be most convenient.

Talking with Deng provides a major influx of information–just the kind of thing the scientists were hoping for. It leaves them excited–but not without jitters. What if they work overtime for months preparing a detailed proposal, only to find out their counterparts in the city haven’t raised enough money? Can they focus on developing a plan that will really be best for panda conservation–or will politics get in the way? I hear someone mutter under his breath, “Sure, pandas are cute–but they’re also a lot of work.”

As we depart on the four-hour drive that will take us into the mountainous reaches of the Wolong Preserve, these worries start to dissipate; here in the mountain air, talks with Chinese scientists breed an infectious enthusiasm. The setting couldn’t be more idyllic: after climbing through an industrialized river valley replete with mines and dams, we reach a deep canyon shrouded in mist, with a gem-colored river rushing over smooth boulders at the valley floor. The hills are steep and craggy, laced with greenery and touched, here and there, by the delicate lilac blooms of rhododendron. Compared to the executive-floor five-star rooms most delegation members have opted for on this trip, hotel rooms in Wolong Town are modest, with feeble space heaters and lukewarm water–but as we stroll along the single road, waving to local Qiang minority farmers who till the fields in front of their age-old stone homes, we realize the comparative luxury of our accommodations. And apparently we ourselves are also quite a sight; Griffith with her African braids and dark skin and Emmanuelson with her curly blond hair attract unabashed wide-eyed stares from these highland folk.

At the heart of the preserve, Wolong Breeding Center had a remarkably successful year in 2000. That means there are eleven baby pandas here for us to play with–although perhaps it would be more accurate to say there are six new foreigners for the pandas to play with, because these creatures definitely want some face-time. “I think it’s one of the great moments of my life that I got to be so close to that many giant pandas,” Parrott later reflects. “They’ve always been the cutest teddy bear in the shop, and I can say firsthand it’s a great experience to have a giant panda reach out and hold hands with you.” There’s no question here of whether human contact will disturb the wildlife–these youngsters are clambering to reach through the bars of their pen, eager to touch each of us as much as they can, pull at our clothes, and lick us if possible, tumbling endearingly, and bleating excitedly the whole time. Before long, everyone in the group has lost our better senses in the face of rabid panda-mania, and we find ourselves stocking up on the pandaphernalia plentifully available in the matching souvenir stands that add a touch of kitsch to these otherwise too-good-to-be-true surroundings.

Not all of Wolong is utopian; some adult pandas still live in small concrete enclosures. But Sichuan Forestry Department Deputy Director Yuan Shijun explains that big changes are slated for this facility, and funding has already been identified to build more of the large hillside enclosures where some of the adult pandas already roam. A new baby panda nursery has already been built, at a cost of about $30,000. And outside the research center, plans are also afoot. The Wolong area is slated for ecotourism development, which will include one five-star hotel, one four-star hotel, and several three-star hotels. The eco-tourism initiative is an attempt to balance a unilateral ban on logging in panda habitat imposed over the past few years with some means for local villagers to develop economic stability.

Tourism development, of course, is not without its critics. A recent study published in Science magazine found that the rate of habitat loss in Wolong itself has actually increased since the area was declared a protected preserve in 1975. The World Wildlife Fund, an international nonprofit that has long been involved in panda preservation, urged advocates to take this report with a grain of salt, pointing out that habitat degradation and loss certainly would have been much worse without the steps taken by the Chinese government to protect it. Even so, Karen Baragona, giant panda conservation program manager at the WWF, told me that ecotourism efforts need to be handled very carefully. “Even things like managing the trash need to be considered,” she says. “It’s tricky to make sure it’s benefiting the local people without allowing such a high volume of tourists that it causes an impact, like you see in the US.” For his part, Parrott says he is encouraged by the plans he sees at Wolong; “I’m a big proponent of ecotourism.” The Chinese plan to build 28 new preserves –which would mean that about seventy percent of existing panda habitat would be protected. As we tour the facilities, taking in the unfinished wooden examination table and the thin stock of medicines, the importance of somehow being able to contribute to this great effort seems closer. When we meet with the research center’s lead scientists, we learn just how valuable the UC Davis contribution could be–not only politically, making the Oakland proposal more attractive to the Chinese, but practically: now that researchers in China have found what seems to be a highly successful reproduction process–through a combination of breeding and artificial insemination –their worry has turned to genetic diversity. Since every female receives more than one set of sperm when she is in heat, it’s impossible to tell the patronage of those adorable babies –unless, of course, you happen to be one of the world’s leading vet labs in genetic identification. Which UC Davis just happens to be.

So will the Oakland Zoo eventually get a giant panda, or two? That remains to be seen, and there are certainly many challenges on the road ahead. But the possibility doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it once did. Maybe I’ve simply succumbed to the appeal of the “cutest teddy bear in the shop,” as Parrott calls them, and to the lure of the beautiful mountain valleys that still offer them a home. As we head back to the crowded, dusty streets of Sichuan’s capital city, Parrott talks about the vital need to protect pristine lands, and about the power of the panda: “When you say giant panda, everybody listens, and with that comes tremendous power. If there’s that much passion and compassion for one species, it can carry the flag for the entire ecology; it can carry the flag for much of the conservation movement to preserve wildlife internationally. It’s a very small step to say, ‘Not only do we need to save the giant panda, we need to save the African elephant; we need to save all these different species that are on the endangered-species lists.’ The more we can foster that bond, well, God bless the giant panda for that. Developers can say, ‘So what if the poison dart frog dies.’ But with the giant panda, even they understand. If the giant panda is gone from the earth, something is wrong. And that’s why I’m here.”

Oakland may have started this project as a way to jockey for a place in the global economy, but at the end of the day, it may end up with global ethics it didn’t even know it had.