Wildlife diplomacy

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Wildlife diplomacy

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There are three tigers from Mount Paektu living in the Korean National Arboretum in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province. Of these, Paektu, an 18-year-old male and Cheonji, a 17-year-old female - both past 60 in human years - were donated by China’s then-President Jiang Zemin during South Korea?China summit talks in 1994.

The third tiger Duman, born in 2001, that former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji donated, lost his female mate, Yalu, when she died of kidney trouble. In an effort to encourage the tigers to procreate, the arboretum gave Viagra to the tigers and even showed them sex education videos, but reportedly they were not the least bit interested in propagating their species.

Giving rare wildlife as gifts during summit talks is a custom particular to the Chinese. They use precious animals living in their vast land as diplomatic resources. Unlike the tigers they gave to us, the foremost animal diplomat that represents China is the panda. To the late former U.S. President Richard Nixon, who came to Beijing in 1972, opening the Bamboo Curtain, China gave a pair of pandas that enjoy eating bamboo leaves.

Later, gifts given to Japan, France, the United Kingdom, West Germany and Mexico in commemoration of establishing diplomatic relations, were pandas. There must have been some calculation on the part of the Chinese government that a panda is worth a hundred diplomats.

Since 1982, to abide by the Washington Treaty that forbids the trade of wild animals, instead of donating, China began to lend the rare animals. The countries receiving the animals must pay $750,000 a year for renting the animals. As a result, the meaning of the gifts has faded.

On Saturday, a pair of ibises arrived at Upo Swamp in Changnyeong, South Gyeongsang, fulfilling Chinese President Hu Jintao’s promise to donate them during summit talks with President Lee Myung-bak.

The governor of South Gyeongsang went in person to receive the birds from China’s Shanxi Province, flying on a private jet and treating the birds as foreign guests.

Based on this, the Korean government plans to restore the population of the birds that have become extinct here. In Japan, they were able to propagate a pair of the species they received as a gift from China in 1999, into 100 birds. We hope that one day we may see the birds in Korean skies that we can only remember from an old nursery rhyme.

Unlike the Paektu tigers that failed to propagate, we hope the birds will multiply in numbers in their new home. Then, the gift from China will keep on giving.


The writer is a deputy political editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Yeh Young-june [yyjune@joongang.co.kr]

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