Our obsession with the bamboo-loving ‘cat bear’ tells us much about the modern world and our place in it, says Henry Nicholls.
Just what is it about the giant panda? This creature is such a prominent feature of the global cultural landscape that it is easy to take its mass appeal for granted.
But the story of how the enigmatic vegetarian mammal with the teeth and gut of a carnivore came from near-total obscurity in the late 19th century to achieve zoological superstardom is worthy of greater reflection.
Humankind’s obsession with the ‘cat bear’ reveals much about our changing attitudes to the natural world, and also about modern China’s journey towards global domination.
A historical mystery
There are plenty of tantalising stories implying that some Chinese emperor or other knew all about the panda – but if so, there’s still one great unanswered mystery. Why is there not a single artistic rendition of this endearing beast in any of Imperial China’s illustrated natural histories?
In fact, the evidence strongly suggests that the panda, though almost certainly familiar to those living in the vicinity of its mountainous hideaway in China, was not known further afield until Père Armand David, a French Catholic missionary, got his hands on a couple of individuals in 1869 and sent the species global. Only then did the panda bandwagon begin to roll.
The subsequent history of the giant panda has been characterised by intense rivalry among its human admirers.
Taxonomists squabbled to be the first to put it in its rightful place in the tree of life; explorers set out to be first to see then shoot one; collectors hoped to be first to get one out of China alive; the public fought to be first to see live individuals; zoos strove to be the first to produce a baby; and scientists vied for the chance to study them in the wild.
The hunger to tick off panda ‘firsts’ was driven by the black-and-white truth that this animal is simply stunning to look at.
Whether it is the attractive markings, the baby-like body proportions, those apparently soulful eyes (all reasons for the panda’s popularity put forward by renowned zoologist Desmond Morris and his wife Ramona in Men and Pandas almost 50 years ago), it is understandable that we should be keen to get close to the species.
One of the strangest interactions between pandas and people took place in the late 1920s, when US President Theodore Roosevelt’s sons Kermit and Teddy Jr tried to become the first Westerners to shoot one dead. By 21st-century standards it was a bizarre, even sick, ambition, but let’s not forget that the very idea of conservation had yet to take shape in any coherent way.
Today, the account of the Roosevelts’ exploits in China – Trailing the Giant Panda, published in 1929 – might make for awkward reading, but at least it shows us how far we’ve come.
More than that, it laid the foundations for another, somewhat more enlightened milestone in the panda’s history: instead of wanting to shoot one, the next task was to take one alive.
It fell to American fashion designer Ruth Harkness to realise this ambition in 1936 with the capture of a baby panda she called Su-Lin (pictured below). Once safely back in the United States with her fluffy charge, its excruciatingly cute antics at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo soon won hearts across America – and the world.
A living logo
It was not long before China’s Communist Party got wise to the Western obsession with everything panda. Under Chairman Mao Zedong, the rare and exclusively Chinese panda, there known as da xiong mao, emerged as the country’s ‘national treasure’.
Almost simultaneously, but independently, WWF
(then called the World Wildlife Fund) alighted on its now-familiar logo in 1961.Publicly, the charity announced that it had chosen the panda because it “owes its survival to the sort of careful conservation which all wild creatures deserve”.
But, with China’s first dedicated panda reserves still two years away, this was not quite the whole story. Like China itself, WWF wanted an animal that was charismatic, precious and rare as its symbol; it also needed something that would print well in black and white.
An irresistable attraction
With the panda taking such confident strides from the zoological into the human world, it is hardly surprising that field researchers were drawn to the species. Some of the biggest names in natural history – Sir David Attenborough is rumoured to have been among them – sought permission to study the panda in its bamboo fastness.
But, owing to China’s ‘closed door’ policy excluding the outside world during its painful Cultural Revolution from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, the first coherent fieldwork on this remarkable species did not get underway until 1980.
Appropriately, the project was a joint effort between China and WWF. There were tensions over their rival claims to the panda’s identity, but nowadays it is the Chinese, rather than Europeans or North Americans, who are responsible for panda firsts.
No sooner had Dolly the Sheep trotted into the spotlight in 1997 than there was talk in China of cloning the panda, despite the significant challenges of applying this technology to an endangered species.
Clones and sequences
Cloning requires a lot of unfertilised eggs and, assuming cloned embryos can be produced, a lot of surrogate mothers into which to insert them. This might not be a problem with common species, but it is a different story for those on the brink.
For any other species under threat these would be insurmountable difficulties – but apparently not for the panda. With funding from China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, Chinese researchers began using rabbits as a source of eggs and as surrogate mothers. They had some early success, but we still await news that the first panda cloning has taken place.
Even the successful sequencing of the giant panda genome in 2009 was more spectacle than substance. The (mostly Chinese) researchers involved were driven by the desire to showcase new sequencing technology rather than to lay bare this particular creature’s DNA sequence.
But at least the project carried none of the ethical baggage of the proposal to clone pandas, and has generated a vast set of data that, one day, will help in the effort to conserve the species.
Many breeding institutions in China receive a financial reward for each new panda cub they rear, resulting in a covert annual competition to boast the greatest number of babies per reproductively active female.
This has had its benefits, helping to bring the world’s captive population to more than 300 individuals – enough, it is thought, to maintain genetic fitness without ever taking another panda from the wild.
However, with this landmark reached, China may now be in a position to begin rewarding institutions for the quality, and not merely the quantity, of their pandas. The animals’ all-round fitness is likely to be the key to the successful reintroduction of captive-bred pandas to the wild, a first that has yet to be realised.