Prime Minister John Key has left the door of the cage open to a deal under which giant pandas would be lent to a New Zealand zoo, but says they will not be on the agenda during his four-day visit to China this month.
He raised the possibility in 2010, after a visit to China, but Key quietly shelved the idea in March 2011, pointing to "higher priorities" for public spending after the Christchurch earthquakes. The hope at the time was to possibly resuscitate the plan in 2013, but it appears to now be on the backburner.
Key said today New Zealand's economic situation had improved and the $1 million-plus price tag was no longer an obstacle.
"Yes ... we can afford a panda; in fact, we can afford two and the bamboo they eat," he said.
"But it takes time. ... Yes, it's a possibility, probably not on this particular visit."
In 2010 the pandas appeared headed for Wellington Zoo in what was briefly expected to be a "pandas for kiwis" swap to lower the cost.
But the plan was dropped without any public fanfare after the most damaging Christchurch earthquake in February 2011.
Emails released under the Official Information Act show the head of the Department of Prime Minister, Maarten Wevers, advised after a short conversation with Key "the panda project will be put in abeyance for a while – much more important priorities for the public purse at the moment".
"I suspect the file might get dusted off again in the future."
The New Zealand embassy in Beijing "will let the panda folk in China know that we remain interested, just not for the time being".
The annual cost of leasing a pair of pandas from China was put at $1.4m, but the costs of feeding them and building facilities to house them would also be considerable.
The Adelaide Zoo reportedly paid more than $10m for its panda enclosure.
However, zoos can expect a big lift in revenues, with Adelaide Zoo's visitor numbers jumping 70 per cent in the six months after its pair of pandas arrived.
Auckland Zoo was offered first dibs on the two giant pandas that Key hoped to rent from the Chinese Government, but the zoo declined.
That had left Wellington in the box seat.
- Fairfax Media
What do you think of claims Kiwis have been misled about mass surveillance?Related story: US spy base in NZ?