BEIJING — WARM and fuzzy they were not.
Relations between the US and the People's Republic were decidedly frosty before President Nixon went to China in 1972. But the historic visit yielded two of the most powerful envoys of a renewed friendship - a pair of cuddly pandas for Washington's National Zoo.
Panda lovers mourned the loss of the surviving male, Hsing-Hsing, this week. Yet figuring out if the popular animals can be replaced is another measure of how much China's relationships have changed: What China once gave as a gift is now a multimillion dollar commodity.
The value of the giant pandas has been increasing the world over. More zoos are requesting panda loans from China and the money is helping to fund research to save the endangered species.
Only about 1,000 pandas are left in the world, with most in their native habitat in China.
Climate changes, China's population explosion, and the mammal's own vulnerability have put into question the giant panda's very survival, say Chinese zoologists.
The giant panda once inhabited vast stretches of what is now the Chinese mainland, but continentwide changes in weather patterns and vegetation sparked a western migration that sped up as China's human population doubled to 1.25 billion over the past century.
The panda's most dangerous enemy is man: The two compete for living space, forest resources, and bamboo in the mountain ranges of western China.
The panda's 20th-century demise could be making it so rare and valuable that impoverished villagers in the panda's shrinking homeland in the provinces of Sichuan and Gansu are willing to face capital punishment to capture a panda.
"Poaching a panda will result in a certain death penalty," says Zong Ying, director of the Beijing Zoo, which hosts 17 pandas.
China has set up dozens of special panda police teams and civilian patrols to enforce the ban, but local hunters still risk death to cash in on the black market for panda pelts, say reports in the official Chinese press.
Liu Shanghua, president of the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens, says the government also "has set up giant panda nature preserves throughout the remaining habitats of the panda" on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. Mr. Liu adds that Chinese biologists "have begun scoring successes in using artificial insemination techniques at panda breeding centers in Chengdu [the capital of Sichuan province] and Beijing."
In China's most ambitious panda-preservation project to date, researchers at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences have begun experiments in cloning the animal by introducing panda cells into the eggs of a Japanese white rabbit. Both Zong and Liu say it's unclear when China's first cloned panda might appear. "We have orders from above not to disclose any details of the panda cloning research," says an academy official who identified herself as Ms. Song.
Zookeeper Zong says bills for panda propagation and research are mounting, and adds scientists are constantly seeking new sources of funding. "Baby pandas are more difficult and expensive to raise than human babies," says Zong, who estimates that each panda costs 300,000 yuan (about $37,500) to maintain annually.
China is receiving $10 million over the next 10 years from Zoo Atlanta for the loan of a pair of giant pandas that arrived in the US just last month. The government is asking for $8 million to rent a replacement pair of pandas to the National Zoo. But the zoo in the US capital, which exhibits free of charge to the public, so far has offered only $2.5 million. Beijing has listed "test-tube" panda research and preservation of the species' habitat as key projects in the Ninth Five-Year Plan, the Party's blueprint for national development through 2000. But it has provided only minimal funding, say Chinese and American scientists.
With no more than about 130 pandas in zoos worldwide, just 5 in the US and 11 of them elsewhere outside China, concurrent panda research programs have had mixed results in encouraging breeding in captivity.
Hsing-Hsing's partner at the National Zoo, Ling-Ling, who died in 1992, had given birth to three cubs plus a set of twins, which are common for pandas. But none survived.
Yet in San Diego Wednesday, the naming of a 100-day-old baby panda was heralded as an indication of just how far the US-China friendship has come. Chosen by the Chinese State Forestry Administration and approved by China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the baby was named Hua Mei, which in one translation means "China USA." Panda fans have been able to monitor Hua Mei at www.sandiegozoo.org/special/ pandacam/index.html, a Web site with live video of the cub's den.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society