BUENGCHAWARK, Thailand — For aquarium worker Kamla Maneegan, painting baby crocodiles to look like crowd-pleasing giant pandas is more than just a job — it’s a point of national pride.
Ever since a pair of pandas on loan from China gave birth to a cub in May, Thailand has gone ga-ga for the black-and-white bears.
One television network broadcasts 24-hour coverage of the cub, Lin Ping, on its “Panda Channel” as she chows down on bamboo shoots, plays with tires and nuzzles her mother. Street vendors and fashion designers have incorporated panda motifs into their work, and the country’s top zoologist has taken to wearing a panda costume for TV interviews. Panda fever appeared to reach a fresh peak in October, when two armed men held up a gas station in Bangkok and made off with two stuffed pandas — leaving the cash register untouched.
The pandas are part of China’s efforts to step up trade and political ties in Southeast Asia. In 2003, it rented a pair of pandas to Thailand’s Chiang Mai Zoo for $300,000 a year — a sharp discount from the $1 million a year China typically charges zoos in the U.S.
The birth of Lin Ping this year was a cash bonanza for the zoo. It was also an achievement for Thai zoologists – Thailand is now one of a handful of countries, including Mexico, Japan and the U.S., to have successfully bred a panda cub outside China. “It’s like winning the lottery,” says Sophon Dumnui, director-general of Thailand’s Zoological Park Association, this time wearing a suit and tie rather than his panda outfit.
Visitors to the zoo doubled to 1.2 million the first year the pandas were there, he says, bringing in an average of $2.7 million a year, including souvenirs. The arrival of Lin Ping in July brought additional revenue of $1.5 million in just six months.
It’s all too much for some Thais, though. They worry that amid all this pandemonium Thailand is forgetting its own endangered species, especially the elephant and the crocodile. Their response: If you can’t beat the panda-huggers, join them, preferably with the help of a couple of jars of black and white paint.
At several sites across the country, commercial aquariums and animal parks are painting their animals in panda colors to keep up visitor numbers in the face of tougher competition — as well as educate people about the threats elephants and crocodiles face in the wild.
Mr. Kamla, a 25-year-old crocodile-handler, fielded a barrage of questions from schoolchildren recently at Buengchawark Underwater Sea Paradise as he and a colleague painted a three-month-old Siamese crocodile in panda colors.
“They’re an endangered species, too, like the panda, so we hope some of our knowledge will trickle down,” Mr. Kamla says.
Prasit Vejprasit, an administrator at the aquarium, says busloads of schoolchildren — the mainstay of the aquarium’s business — continue coming to the site, a couple of hours’ travel northwest of Bangkok, encouraged in large part by the panda-colored crocs. He says teachers often call to confirm the aquarium is still painting crocodiles before sending their classes.
The children seem to enjoy the novelty. “Most crocodiles are scary but this one is cute,” says Siripob Dara, 9 years old, before he asks Mr. Kamla how long it can grow and what it eats.
Applying the panda makeover can be tricky. Juvenile crocs wriggle around making little chirping noises, and some visitors question whether a fresh lick of paint harms the animals. (The aquarium says it uses thinned-down watercolors, which wash off quickly.) Mr. Prasit says painting adult crocodiles can be dangerous. “It takes about three people to hold them down, and once it’s done the paint comes off as soon as they slip into the water,” he says. In many ways, he says, “it’s a waste of time.”
Elephants pose a problem, too, mostly because of their size. Sometimes step ladders are used to get to those hard-to reach spots behind the ears.
The painting practice has stirred up debate. Images of panda look-alikes, only with sharper teeth or trunks, have streamed onto video and photo-sharing sites, while Thais and others argue the rights and wrongs of painting animals.
Mr. Sophon, the zoologist, writes off the practice as a marketing gimmick — much as he tries to promote Chiang Mai’s pandas by occasionally suiting up in his panda outfit.
Other conservationists say a useful point is being made by making other animals look like bears. “Elephants are huge and we need lots of money to feed them,” says Laithongrien Meepan, owner of the Royal Elephant Kraal in Ayutthya and an experienced handler.
Earlier this year, he began painting elephants to draw attention to the problems Thailand’s elephant population faces. “The government should help promote elephants, and not just pandas,” Mr. Laithongrien says.
Some of Thailand’s wildlife is endangered because of years of rapid economic development. Agriculture in particular has become a major export industry here. Modern farming methods have introduced pesticides into the environment and encroached on the territory of the fearsome Siamese crocodile, which can grow to four to five meters in length. So few are left in the wild that conservationists once thought it was extinct and have reintroduced some farm-reared crocodiles back into the natural habitat.
Elephants, meanwhile, have seen their numbers dwindle over the past century, with conservationists estimating that 1,500 live wild in Thailand’s natural parks, while a similar number are domesticated. Some can often be seen being led around downtown Bangkok streets by their mahouts looking for food.
The cub Lin Ping is supposed to be sent to China when she reaches two years — in about 18 months — and many Thais, especially children, find it hard to face up to that possibility. Street vendors in Chiang Mai, meanwhile, consider the panda cub a mini-stimulus package. “I sell twice as much now as I did before Lin Ping was born,” says Darunee Na Chiang Mai, a 40-year-old juice and noodle vendor who runs a stall outside the zoo.
Local politicians have proposed keeping Lin Ping in Thailand by creating a joint panda-breeding program in Chiang Mai with China, which would be a world first. China has said it will “think about it,” Mr. Sophon says, and he remains hopeful. China, after all, has been gifting or lending pandas as part of its diplomatic missions for centuries, ever since the Empress Wu Zetian sent a pair of giant pandas to the emperor of Japan in 685. Chinese authorities didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In the meantime, Mr. Kamla says he is resigning himself to giving his crocs their daily beauty treatment to keep up with the competition in this new, post-panda Thailand. “It’s impossible not to do it now,” he says as another batch of schoolchildren swarm around him for a closer a look at the panda-colored crocodiles. “People expect it.”