The federal budget didn't save Australia's giant pandas, Wang Wang and Fu Ni, from deportation – but hope is not lost

Adelaide ZooWang Wang and Fu Ni at Adelaide Zoo.

Two Chinese pandas are the unlikely stars of an Australian government showdown.

Wang Wang and Fu Ni, the giant pandas residing at Adelaide Zoo, are at the centre of what feels like a never-ending Aussie government funding debate.

In the federal budget on Tuesday night, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government failed to commit to ongoing funding for the furry giants. This could mean Wang Wang and Fu Ni will be sent home to China in November – when the current loan agreement ends after a decade – if the Coalition government stays in power and funding talks with the Adelaide Zoo fail.

The pandas are on loan to Australia from China for a period of 10 years and at a cost of $1 million per year. The duo arrived at Adelaide Zoo in November 2009 and the zoo is one of only 22 zoos around the world to host giant pandas.

In the Adelaide Advertiser’s story “10 burning questions the federal budget can answer for South Australia,” the publication asked for an answer on panda funding.

“Will Adelaide Zoo get funding to keep giant pandas Wang Wang and Fu Ni, rather than send them back to China after the existing loan agreement ends in November?” the author asked – for all of Australia.

In an email to Business Insider Australia, Zoos South Australia Chief Executive Elaine Bensted made it clear that funding for the pandas has never been a line item in the federal budget and that discussions are continuing with the Australia and South Australian government.

“We are having positive discussions with the Australian and South Australian Governments and are hopeful the funding will be extended. If the loan agreement is not extended, Wang Wang and Fu Ni will return to China,” Bensted said.

A commitment in the government’s federal budget would at least have allowed the pandas to relax a little and to get on with trying to make a baby.

Adelaide Zoo

Despite the inaction from the Coalition government, the opposition Labor party has committed to extending funding for the giant pandas, should they be elected this year. Labor senator Penny Wong announced in February a Labor government would fund the agreement for five years.

“We will fund, for five years, at $1.3 million a year, to ensure that we can continue to enjoy, and most importantly that our children can continue to enjoy, Wang Wang and Fu Ni, just as so many kids and their parents today are enjoying the pandas,” Wong said at a press conference in Adelaide.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in response his focus was dying cattle in Queensland due to floods rather than pandas in South Australia.

“I will simply say this: My priority at the moment, actually with all due respect to the people in South Australia and pandas, is cattle lying dead on properties in north Queensland,” he said. “That’s where my focus is right now. If the Labor party wants to focus on pandas that’s fine, I’ll focus on dead cattle on the ground in north Queensland.”

Adelaide Zoo is part of an international effort to create and conserve habitats for the giant pandas. The zoo is collecting knowledge about their nutritional requirements, reproductive biology and how the difference in hemisphere affects the pandas.

The international effort has already had a tangible effect: during the time the pandas have spent at Adelaide Zoo, the species has been downlisted from “endangered” to “vulnerable”.

“Wang Wang and Fu Ni are tourism drawcards and have generated significant economic output for the South Australian economy and have supported the creation of many jobs in South Australia,” Bensted told Business Insider Australia.

“It is important to remember their contribution is not just financial – conservation education and research is the major benefit. With half a million visitors each year, including 50,000 students, Wang Wang and Fu Ni are powerful ambassadors for their species and are priceless in terms of their contribution to education and conservation.”

According to Adelaide Zoo, an analysis by The University of Queensland has shown the giant pandas contributed between $16.1 million and $51.5 million in total gross output to the South Australian economy in 2010 and the arrival of the giant pandas supported up to 1085 jobs in South Australia.

In 2018, Bensted said the zoo needed the government’s money to keep the pandas. An animal-loving benefactor could also save the day.

“That sort of money is beyond our resources, we couldn’t do that,” Bensted told the ABC, in regards to Adelaide Zoo footing the bill. “There’s no guarantee, but we’ve always said we’d like to keep giant pandas at Adelaide Zoo.”

With all the fuss, how are Wang Wang and Fu Ni holding up? “They are doing really well,” Bensted told Business Insider Australia. “When they’re not delighting the public and exploring their habitats, they’re busy munching on bamboo and having the odd nap.”

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