China gave two Pandas, Ching-Ching and Chia-Chia, to the previous PM, Edward Heath, in a gesture of friendship. They have done this with so many countries that it has been dubbed "Panda diplomacy". But later, the London Zoo told the government that the cost of importing bamboo shoots was worrisome for the nearly bankrupt zoo (Pandas eat 45 kg or 100 pounds a day), and that the Pandas also needed a shelter, which would cost 70,000 Pounds (about 68,000 of today's US dollars). Another, ahem, weighty matter, was that China was receive two white rhinos in return for the Pandas. Another big expense. It fell on the Wilson government to deal with the situation.
The Wilson government feared that if it did not help the zoo financially it would be seen as an affront by China and hurt relations. They were also concerned about losing face at home. As one Foreign Office memo stated, "Given the notorious sentiment of the British public about animals, this could make the government look unnecessarily unsympathetic."
Governments big and small in this world can find any amount of money (or debt) to buy ships and nukes and fighter planes and such, and even to wage wars. But take care of a couple of peaceful, adorable Pandas in the hope of smoothing relations and preventing the need for those weapons and maybe save a species in the bargain? No.
In the end the British government did not give any money to the zoo. The Pandas got along as best they could, and apparently there were no international repercussions from the incident, which is all the humans in either country's government really cared about.
The BBC News report only focuses on the fallout for the humans and their governments. But what of the Pandas?
Ching-Ching, the female, needed much medical attention in London and died of a bacterial infection in 1980. Chia-Chia went to Mexico in 1988 (via Cincinnati) for mating. He died in Mexico City in 1991.
The London Zoo was without any Pandas for some time, and the Pandas had been their star attractions (of course!). The zoo hoped that Koalas would replace the Pandas in that role. Please! Koalas are cute, but half the time you can't even see them up in the trees, and they are nocturnal animals and so sleep all day besides.
I have seen Ling-Ling at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo. Ling-Ling has been flown to Mexico three times, and female Pandas brought to him as well. It is so pathetic to see such a magnificent animal (if may I say so myself) kept in a concrete, tile, and glass enclosure with just a few stalks of bamboo as a cruel reminder of what his habitat should be.
Some people argue that having these animals in zoos may help their chances of survival through breeding and helps to educate people about their plight. Maybe. But think of all the millions of dollars that have been spent on sending these animals to zoos around the world, flying them from place to place - often repeatedly - in attempts to get them to mate, maintaining walls around them, feeding them, and trying to keep them healthy. I can't help wondering that if all that money had instead been spent on anti-poaching efforts and protection of their forest habitats, might not the Giant Pandas be much better off than they are today?
Instead, their fate is to be used as the main draw for zoos and as mere pawns on the chessboard of international politics.