If the National Zoo gets the two new giant pandas it seeks, the black and white bears could be on the Internet for all to see.
But before that can happen, the zoo has to succeed in persuading both the U.S. and Chinese governments to allow the pandas to be imported. The zoo's application for a panda import permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was obtained after The Washington Post filed a Freedom of Information Act request.
The zoo estimates that it would cost $400,000 a year to feed, care for and house the pandas, paid for out of operating funds. Friends of the National Zoo, the zoo's fund-raising auxiliary, also has pledged $2.5 million to China for panda research there over 10 years -- which is essentially the fee for borrowing the animals on a long-term basis. To sweeten the deal, zoo scientists have promised to undertake extensive panda research and training of wildlife biologists in China.
A zoo delegation plans to fly to China this month in hopes of finalizing an agreement to acquire the rare creatures. Only about a thousand remain in the world.
Zoo officials submitted their application to the Fish and Wildlife Service in February, but the paperwork will not be complete until zoo officials identify the animals they hope to import -- one detail they hope to nail down with this visit.
"There's still a long way to go, but we are hopeful," zoo spokesman Robert Hoage said yesterday of the quest.
The zoo's elderly giant panda, Hsing-Hsing, a 28-year-old male, has a kidney ailment that his keepers say is probably his final illness. His mate, Ling-Ling, died in 1992. The pair, a gift from China in 1972, produced five cubs, but none lived more than a few days.
Hsing-Hsing is the zoo's most popular attraction. The zoo application estimates that new pandas would bring in 20 percent more visitors -- 400,000 people a year. Sales of gifts, souvenirs, food and drinks would rise by $1.2 million, the estimate says.
The Web camera, according to Hoage, would be one aspect of top-to-bottom renovations to the panda house and yard, estimated to cost $3.25 million. The zoo would fence the panda yard into two or three sections, depending on whether Hsing-Hsing is still alive. The zoo also would rebuild climbing structures in the yard that Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling used to play on and would add new structures indoors.
Most of the cost for panda upkeep would go to hire another keeper and renovate the quarters. The panda food budget, the application notes, would be $7,000 a year for both animals. "This does not include bamboo, which is grown here at the Zoo," the application noted. "The cost of harvesting the bamboo is included in the cost of the keepers, supplemented by volunteers."
The National Zoo, which is free to the public, would not charge admission to the panda exhibit, the application said. Nor does the zoo plan to remove the pandas from the exhibit for lengthy periods, because "reproductive performance at the National Zoo and at several institutions in China suggests that being on public exhibit does not interfere with normal sexual behavior or successful pregnancy."
The application outlines plans for extensive medical, behavioral, nutritional and demographic studies of pandas in the wild and in captivity. American zoos have agreed that all panda exhibits here should fit the larger goal of supporting conservation of the animal in the wild.
But the National Zoo's proposal for copious research in China itself is intended as a sweetener to that country. Both the San Diego Zoo, which has a pair of pandas on loan, and the Atlanta zoo, which has been promised a pair, pledged more than $1 million a year to pay for conservation in China. The National Zoo, which promised $250,000 a year for 10 years, hopes its in-kind help will make up the difference.
Friends of the National Zoo, which has set up a panda fund to raise the $2.5 million total, has pledged to take out a loan if it cannot raise enough.
Among the promised research by zoo scientists is help in conducting a new national census of pandas in China and in developing a satellite monitoring system. They also promised to establish a community education program for areas near panda reserves to drum up enthusiasm among local people for panda preservation. One reason the panda is endangered is that the bamboo forests where it lives are being cut down for development.
The application outlines a proposal to study hormone and stress levels in captive and wild giant pandas to isolate factors in captivity that are dampening reproduction. Scientists say this could help them design better conditions for zoo animals that could lead to more panda offspring.
The research plan even includes Hsing-Hsing: It proposes studying how a new panda pair react to a lone male nearby.
Privately, zoo officials are not optimistic that Hsing-Hsing will live until next summer, the earliest date they hope new pandas could arrive. But there is plenty of room for him in the existing quarters, they say.
CAPTION: Hsing-Hsing napped in his quarters at the National Zoo earlier this month after his keepers announced that he had developed a serious kidney ailment.
CAPTION: Hsing-Hsing, pictured in 1997, munched on leaves at feeding time.