China halts panda gifts to foreign countries

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BEIJING, Sep 13 (Reuters) China has halted its time-honoured goodwill gesture of giving highly endangered pandas to foreign countries, local media reported today, citing a Chinese wildlife official.

China would only lend pandas for the purposes of ''breeding and biological research'', Chinanews.com quoted Cao Qingyuan, State Forestry Administration spokesman, as saying.

''The Chinese government has stopped giving pandas as gifts abroad. We will only be conducting research with foreign countries,'' Cao said.

The giant panda is one of the world's most endangered species and is found only in China. An estimated 1,600 wild pandas live in nature reserves in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces.

The pandas, which risk extinction in their native mountains and bamboo forests, have been loaned and given outright to a number of countries as goodwill gifts and symbols of friendship.

Detractors have accused China of using ''panda diplomacy'' to push its political agendas and of reaping exorbitant loan fees from host countries.

On Saturday, Spain's Madrid zoo welcomed a pair of pandas loaned by the Chinese government. Last week, China agreed to send a pair of pandas from its Wolong nature reserve in southwestern Sichuan province to Adelaide zoo in Australia on a 10-year loan.

Cao said China would give pandas as presents only to Hong Kong, which was returned to China in 1997, and to Taiwan, the neighbouring self-ruled island China considers its own.

''This is an activity of sending pandas between brothers,'' Cao said.

In April, China sent a second pair of pandas to Hong Kong to mark the 10th anniversary of the former British colony's return to Chinese rule.

China has offered several times to send pandas to Taiwan but has been repeatedly rebuffed. One Taiwanese lawmaker once likened them to Beijing's version of the Trojan horse, ''meant to destroy Taiwan's psychological defences''.

REUTERS JT KP1037

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