American zoos say they are struggling to afford the rent on pandas from China - and may have to send the cuddly creatures back home if prices cannot be cut.
Keeping a pair of giant pandas, with their huge appetite for freshly harvested bamboo and demands for special attention, costs around $2m (€1.66m) a year – at least $1m (€830,000) of which is paid in fees to the Chinese.
And despite the fact that visitors flock to see them, the income they generate has not proved to be enough to cover that price.
Now the four US zoos who keep giant pandas have clubbed together to try to renegotiate the rent with China, and warn that if it cannot be reduced they they may have to say goodbye to the creatures.
Dennis Kelly, the president and chief executive of Atlanta zoo, in Georgia, estimated that the panda deal was worth $80m (€68m) to China, although he stressed that the cash was ploughed straight into schemes to help pandas there.
The figure included an average increase of $600,000 (€503,000) on the annual fee if cubs are born, and the sums of between $200,000 (€167,000) and $500,000 (€419,000) the zoos must pay each year for research and conservation projects in the US and in China.
A panda’s upkeep is said to cost five times more than that of the next most expensive animal, an elephant.
“When the American zoos entered into this arrangement we assumed that the programme would be far more self-sustaining than it has turned out to be,” Mr Kelly said.
“But the level at which we are funding it is not sustainable.”
Giant pandas are also on loan to zoos in Washington, San Diego and Memphis.
Atlanta’s pandas, Lun Lun and Yang Yang, each eat 84 pounds of bamboo a day, and have a four-person entourage to look after them, including a PhD curator.
Six people travel around Georgia six days a week to harvest bamboo for them from 400 volunteers who grow it in their gardens.
The zoo’s current 10-year agreement with China runs out in 2009.
“Certainly at the end of that agreement I’m not prepared to take on another obligation for 10 years at this level,” Mr Kelly said.
“There are too many other animals that deserve out attention.
“We are their stewards so we would ask the Chinese what they wanted us to do with them.”
Pandas are undisputedly popular with visitors, but crowds dwindle after the first year if no cubs are produced.
The San Diego Zoo’s contract with China will expire first, in 2008, while Memphis Zoo’s agreement does not end until 2013.