6 June 2024

Thailand’s long love affair with giant pandas may be over after critics raised objections to another loan deal with China. The curtain came down on the kingdom’s two-decade affair this year when Lin Hui, Thailand’s last remaining panda, died at Chiang Mai Zoo.

The beloved bear, who delighted zoo visitors for 20 years, took her last breath on April 19. She was 21. Thailand had never hosted a panda before Lin Hui arrived, and may not do so again.

Though the Zoological Park Organization of Thailand planned to import more giant pandas from China through a research project, no progress has been reported over the past few months.

Warm welcome

Born in China on September 28, 2001, Lin Hui arrived in Thailand on October 12, 2003, with Chuang Chuang, the male panda selected as her mate in the hope that Thailand would soon hear the pitter-patter of baby pandas’ feet.

The pair were given a red carpet welcome, with Chiang Mai hosting a huge party and grand parade for its furry new arrivals.

Chiang Mai Zoo spent more than 46 million baht to build an air-conditioned new home for the panda couple. They were served regular meals of leafy bamboo sticks, along with snacks made from carrots, apples and bamboo several times a day.

The pandas were nicknamed Kham Ueai and Kham Ai in the northern Lanna dialect while the rest of Thailand called them Thewi and Thewan.

The annual bill for the two giant pandas came to more than 500,000 baht each, according to the zoo. It claimed the bears were treated better in Chiang Mai than they would have been in some other countries.

Celebrity life

Birthday parties were thrown every year for Chuang Chuang and Lin Hui. When they reached mating age, the zoo hosted a five-day wedding ceremony in late 2005.

The bears were an immediate hit among tourists, with thousands flocking to their enclosure every day for a glimpse of their daily routine.

The couple became even bigger stars when Lin Hui gave birth to Lin Ping on May 27, 2009. Chiang Mai Zoo received over 7.4 million visitors in the past two decades, according to zoo data.

People who couldn’t make it to the zoo could follow developments in the lives of the baby panda and her parents via a 24-hour television feed. Clips from the live broadcast often went viral on social media.

Departures

The only giant panda to be born in Thailand, Lin Ping was also the first of her species to leave the country. She was shipped to China at the age of four in the general belief that she would return after a mate had been found for her there. However, Lin Ping remains in China.

Chuang Chuang died of heart failure at the age of 19 in 2019. Lin Hui followed four years later.

Costs to bear

While the loan of Lin Hui and Chuang Chuang was meant to be a goodwill gesture on the part of Beijing, it also had a financial component. Under the loan agreement’s renewal clause, Thailand had to pay at least US$1 million (34.9 million baht) per year and hand over any cub born during the loan period to China.

During the pandas’ lifetime here, Thailand paid more than 260 million baht to the China Wildlife Conservation Association in grants. This was in addition to the funds paid by several other organizations to ensure the two pandas lived comfortably.

The huge costs involved have sparked opposition to the idea of hosting more pandas.

Perhaps the most vocal opponent is Kanchana Silpa-archa, a senior Chartthaipattana Party member and older sister of Social Development and Human Security Minister Varawut Silpa-archa.

“The funds spent [on hosting more pandas] would be massive. That money could be put to better use in protecting other wildlife,” she said. “I love pandas, but also other animals.”

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk