Yang Guang, a male giant panda, sits surrounded by bamboo in his enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland April 16, 2013. Experts at the zoo believe the 36-hour breeding window for Yang Guang and female giant panda Tian Tian may have started.

Classes on negotiations usually revolve around acquisitions or distribution deals. Not so at the Schulich school of business at York University in Toronto, where giant pandas are the theme of the day.

Schulich researcher Stephen Weiss, associate professor of policy and international business, believes that there is a lot to be learnt from the way negotiations have been conducted between the Chinese government and zoos around the world for the loan of pandas. But he came across the subject almost by accident.

It was one Sunday when he was reading a story in the New York Times about the financial problems facing San Diego zoo, the home of two of the pandas, that he realised that the panda loan story would make interesting research and teaching material. “The one thing that really clobbered me over the head was the negotiations were much more complicated than they might at first seem.”

In particular, he was enthralled by the fact that the chief executive of San Diego zoo spent more time conducting negotiations away from the negotiating table than he did with the Chinese. Environmental groups, animal rights activists, trade specialists, political lobbyists …all had views on the loan of the pair of pandas to the zoo.

There is a lot corporate managers can learn from the experience, says Prof Weiss, who has written a case study on the negotiation process. In the case he was keen to extract information on how the negotiations unfolded, what was the explanation for the outcome and what negotiators in other situations can learn.

As well as keeping an eye on what is happening outside the negotiation room with other interested parties, Prof Weiss also says that zoos should realise the strength of their own bargaining positions. San Diego zoo, for example, had a successful history in breeding animals in captivity, something that was of real value to the Chinese as they tried to prevent the extinction of giant pandas.

More recently the topic has come closer to home for Prof Weiss. Two Canadian zoos, in Toronto and Calgary, have negotiated the loan of a pair of giant pandas. They will be on view to the public in Toronto zoo from mid-May. One of the big selling points for the Chinese was the strong record of Calgary in returning animals bred in captivity to the wild.

But the Canadian zoos also demonstrated a further negotiating skill – what Prof Weiss dubs creativity. The standard loan agreement for a pair of pandas includes a 10-year contract at a fee of $1m a year. For many zoos, this is an exorbitant cost. “Toronto couldn’t afford it (alone) so they worked with other Canadian zoos,” says Prof Weiss. The two Canadian zoos decided the best plan was the split the costs and access to the pandas, says Prof Weiss, with each zoo hosting the giant pandas for five years.

Prof Weiss is now writing both a case study and journal articles on the experience at the zoos.


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