Pandas may have to be returned to China, warns Ähtäri mayor

Ähtäri Zoo has run into financial difficulties. The city-owned company must decide the fate of two giant pandas by next summer.

Maintenance of pandas costs Ähtäri Zoo one million euros per year. Image: Birgitta Vuorela / Yle

Two giant pandas loaned by China arrived at Ähtäri Zoo in western Finland in 2018. Given the Finnish names Lumi (Snow) and Pyry (Blizzard), they quickly became public favourites, but their maintenance costs the facility about a million euros annually. Now the zoo in South Ostrobothnia faces financial trouble due to last year's drop in visitors due to coronavirus restrictions.

The zoo was promised 1.5 million euros in pandemic support by the state last year, but says it only received 200,000 euros from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in July this year.

The zoo is almost entirely owned by the town of Ähtäri, which has a population of 5,500. Mayor Jarmo Pienimäki is closely involved in the company, have served as its acting CEO last summer when the actual CEO was on sick leave.

According to Pienimäki, the zoo's financial situation is serious. The lack of state support is not the only reason, but it is crucial in regard to the pandas' situation, he told Yle.

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Ähtäri Zoo attracted about 150,000 visitors annually before the pandemic. Image: Antti Kettumäki / Yle

Now Lumi and Pyry may have to be returned to China as soon as the turn of the year if the park does not receive financial support, commercial broadcaster MTV reported on Friday.

The zoo, which is nearly 50 years old, has long faced financial difficulties. A possible return of the pandas was last suggested in mid-2020.

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A giant panda eats bamboo in Ähtäri. Pandas had to be returned from Canada to China when bamboo could not be delivered for the animals due to Covid restrictions. Image: Birgitta Vuorela / Yle

The town owns 99.6 percent of the zoo's shares. Pienimäki says that financing must be secured by next summer at the latest, but if the options are either returning the pandas to China or letting the company go bankrupt, the choice would be clear.

"There is only one option in my role here, and that is that we won't allow the company to go bankrupt," he said.

So pandas may go back to China?

"Yes, it is unfortunately a real option, if no other solution is found," he told Yle on Saturday.

The city has approached private financiers, but according to Pienimäki, despite dozens of negotiations, no help has been found for the financial distress.

Pienimäki suspects that state aid regulations have been an obstacle to receiving 1.5 million euros in subsidies approved in last year's fourth supplementary budget. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry looked into the matter for a year, but decided that only 200,000 euros could be allocated to the zoo since it operates as a joint-stock company.

In contrast, Helsinki's Korkeasaari Zoo is based on a foundation model, which has made it easier for it to gain state support.