Animal Diplomacy or Animal Exploitation?

In the 2014 movie, ‘The Interview’,  Kim Jong-un gifts a puppy to Dave Skylark, the host of an American talk show, as a gesture to show how much he likes him. Although, it is obvious what his actual motive is- the interview shouldn’t spill out the harsh realities of his country, North Korea. This is a classic example of animal diplomacy.

Animal Diplomacy refers to the act of gifting animals between countries as a gesture of goodwill. Governments gift each other animals that are endemic to their countries in order to house and display a larger variety of animals.

For centuries, animals have been used as diplomatic gifts in order to create and maintain positive relations between territories. Gifting of animals has been a means to display purity and integrity. Bears, lions, pandas, elephants, horses, birds and even giraffes, have been used for animal diplomacy since historical times. They have been used as symbols of power, strength, beauty and a way to pan out diplomatic relations between the giver and the receiver.

Now, multiple countries have started gifting animals which are solely endemic to their own country. The most popular is China’s ‘Panda diplomacy’ followed by Australia’s koalas which began its diplomatic relations since the G20 summit in Brisbane. Dog diplomacy has also become popular due to Vladimir Putin’s fondness of dogs, known for receiving and sending puppies of various breeds. Komodo dragons and elephants have also been popular choices for animal diplomacy.

But the really worrying issue is the delusive use of animals in a transaction to cut out financial deals rather than for diplomatic relations.

The legal implications of animal diplomacy are not many. Many of the animals transferred are wild or may be endangered. Such animals fall under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). According to their official site,

CITES is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.’

Over 180 countries are signatories of this convention. The regulations apply to trade between countries and do not override national laws or regulate domestic trade in any way. It is important to understand that ‘trade’ includes the transfer of animals covered under this convention from one country to another. It does not involve the ‘something for something’ aspect solely.

Under this convention, animals are classified into three categories. The first category is the species which are highly endangered or threatened with extinction. Although trade is prohibited, exceptions have been made for cross-border movement if the intention is not for commercial sale. But this isn’t enough it protect them.

Animal diplomacy comes bundled with multiple ethical issues which are often not discussed. For transporting animals, multiple clearances and permits have to be taken. Animals of all sizes are flown across seas from small birds to lions and horses. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has laid down the conditions for transporting animals which have to be followed even in cases of animal diplomacy. Typically, animals aren’t kept in their natural environment and are confined to small and smelly cages. Most of the animals are sent to zoos where space is a significant issue. It is usually a struggle to accommodate resident animals and their offsprings which are given birth to in the zoo. Even though many countries have been trying not to keep their animals in zoos, it is usually not possible as they are not native to their countries. Consequently, they are transported to another zoo.

It has been argued by many, that zoos are essential for conserving animals as well as for educational purposes. Due to habitat degradation and increasing human population, wildlife reserves and forests have lost cover, making it an unfavorable home for international exotic animals. Thus, a zoo seems to be the best choice in such cases. But the question arises- Do we really need to use animals to make good relations, just so that they can spend their lives in a zoo?

India has lately stopped accepting animals from other countries, as it has stopped taking interest in donating such the animals in zoos. China’s panda diplomacy has also stirred quite a controversy. Since, 1984, China has been offering pandas to other countries on ten-year loans on certain terms- a hefty fee up to US$1,000,000 per year, and China would be the owner of any cubs born during the duration of the loan. In 1998, the World Wildlife Foundation issued a lawsuit against this practice, due to which now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can allow a U.S. zoo to import a panda only if the zoo can ensure that China will utilize more than half of its loan fee for conserving wild pandas and their habitat.

China’s gestures seem to give preference to political advantages rather than animal welfare and protection. Recently, Taiwan accepted two pandas from China, but the Taiwanese opponents have urged people to avoid visiting the Pandas as they are a veil to cover China’s actual desire to end Taiwan’s independence.

A new law is the need of the hour to govern animal diplomacy and the future of animals. The sad truth is that no matter how well animals are kept in zoos, they would still not have the freedom to roam freely and live in their natural habitat with more of their own species. Although pandas are highly popular all over the world for their cute and cuddly nature and appearance, countries like China often neglect other endangered species like tigers and lions. Such acts defy the very purpose of animal diplomacy, as it becomes quite clear what the ulterior motive is.

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