Wednesday, 12 September 2012

On the Way of the Panda

Other than tigers, I would say that pandas are my favorite animals.  The choice of tigers is an obvious one; born in the Chinese year of the tiger, I am always awed at the grandness, strength, and noble-like features of these giant felines.  And pandas, oh well, who doesn’t like them?

While on a trip to Chengdu in 2007, I had the chance to visit the Panda Research Base.  It was here that I first encountered these beautiful bears.  I can’t even describe the feeling of joy when watching one, two, three, and more of them rolling around in their enclosures, biting bamboo shoots, and generally not paying attention to the human visitors.  Up on the trees, a few of them have gone into some serious siestas.  And yes, there were panda cubs too.  It was definitely one of the highlights of my travels in China.

Po, my hero
Pandas have to be some of the most celebrated, most popular animals in the world.  Hollywood has immortalized Po, the Kung Fu Panda, in a movie thoroughly enjoyed by audiences of many ages.  Pandas are also the face of the World Wildlife Fund, which is one of the most well-known NGO on the preservation of animals (particularly species facing extinction).  And pandas (not dragons) have been given the status as “national treasures” by the Chinese Government.  I don’t think even kangaroos, which are so associated with Australia, enjoy such an elevated status.  Or kiwis in New Zealand, for that matter.

But did you know that Pandas were actually not known outside of China until 1869?  Did you know that it was a French priest who first marveled at the magical beauty of these black and white furballs?  Did you know that it wasn’t until the good part of the Cold War that pandas become such a global hit?  And did you know that despite having a panda as its logo, the WWF (established in 1961) actually didn’t start to work on pandas until the early 1980s?

Don’t worry, I didn’t know any of this either.  Not until I read Henry Nicholls’ The Way of the Panda: The CuriousHistory of China’s Political Animal.

Book Cover
In what I felt to be a well-written book, Nicholls tracks the history of pandas’ rise to fame.  From the times when westerners raced against one another to have the chance to hunt one down, to our conditions now, in which no one in their right mind would even think about hurting a panda, let alone shoot one to death.  The book explains the science of pandas, explaining the many efforts to classify pandas; is it a bear, or is it more of a raccoon?  The answer was that pandas are bears, but a species rather different from the black, brown, and polar bears that we see in places outside of China.

It was in Nicholls’ book that I discovered that the first panda ever “exported” abroad alive was named Su-Lin.  And it was in this book as well that I learned so much about Chi-Chi, the first post WWII panda ever to make it to the West. 

Indeed, the story of Chi-Chi occupies a significant portion of the book.  A review in The Guardian calls her story one with “celebrity, satire, television crews, and copious political intrigue.” Chi-Chi was the panda whose drawing became the basis of WWF’s logo.  And it was through studying her that humans learned about the “sexual problems” pandas have, thus contributing to their low numbers on earth.  Chi-Chi also became the symbol of the East-West divide when her failed mating with An-An (a panda given by the Chinese to the Soviets) mirrored the many failures at détente between the two Cold War foes.

I guess, this is what makes Nicholls’ story of the panda a fascinating read.  It took me only 3 days (working days, that is) to finish the 300-page book.  There were many anecdotes derived from accounts previously written by panda observers, enthusiasts, and researchers. 

Nicholls describes many “firsts” in the short history of the panda.  Among them, the first panda seen by a westerner, the first panda killed by a westerner (the son of former US President Teddy Roosevelt), the first panda born in captivity, and the first panda twins.  There was also an account of the first panda( Xiang-Xiang) to be reintroduced to the wild, which died shortly after being attacked by other pandas in the wild.  Well, he certainly didn't know any kung fu .

Panda on my head
While still keeping some of the scientific approaches to learning pandas, Nicholls sets the book against the historical and political backgrounds influencing pandas’ popularity.  How they’ve become such a marketing sensation and used as tools of diplomacy, something akin to the bearing of gifts during Cleopatra’s times.

Nicholls also brought in a study of the ups and downs of the People’s Republic of China.  When the Chinese were in disarray during the fading Qing Empire, pandas were being hunted to death. Their lives didn’t actually become better throughout the Cold War, as China felt threaten by foreign influences.  Lacking resources, the protection pandas became only a side-note in the Chinese Government’s agenda.  And even when China became more capitalist in the 1980s, problems often surfaced when weighing panda-protection programs against economic development (which often affects pandas’ living environments).

Today, things have gotten so much better for the panda.  The Chinese Government, with funds to spare, has made a more concerted effort to protect their “national treasure”.  In one of the examples in the book, the Chinese Government was even prepared to move logging companies and compensate them dearly so that their activities would not intervene in panda-protection programs.  It seems that as the Chinese people’s livelihoods become better, so have those of the panda. 

At the Panda Research Base in Chengdu, 2007
As their “national treasure”, the Chinese have made sure that the panda will always be Chinese.  All pandas born in China are given Chinese names, and even when they are loaned to other countries, they never loose their nationality.  This is why it has been so difficult to bring a panda to Indonesia.  Apparently Indonesians haven’t really gotten over the 1960s laws enforcing no dual nationalities among Indonesians and Chinese. 

But I’m hearing that there is progress in these efforts.  I guess, as Indonesia becomes more important to China, it has become panda-worthy for the Chinese.  And so, pretty soon, we’ll probably get to feast our eyes on a panda in Taman Safari Cisarua.  That’ll be a sight.  More so not only because of the panda’s cute demure, but also because I’ve somehow grown a greater appreciation for the lives and deaths of these beautiful animals.

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