The political panda
Our obsession with the bamboo-loving ‘cat bear’ tells us much about the modern world and our place in it, says Henry Nicholls.
Given the giant panda’s huge popular appeal, the symbolic role with which we have invested the creature, its ability to raise capital, the academic effort that’s been devoted to understanding its biology, and the willingness of politicians to commit to its conservation, the panda was probably always going to have a fascinating human history.
Even so, it is still rather satisfying that its changing fortunes should mirror the balance of economic and political power as it shifts from West to East.
- A decade ago, the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP) near Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province began to lay plans for the first reintroduction of a captive-raised giant panda to the wild.
- In 2003, staff started preparing a young male, Xiang-Xiang, for a life without humans, gradually increasing the size of his enclosure and his dependence on wild bamboo. In 2006, amid much media fanfare, he was radio-collared and let loose. But tragedy struck: he was dead within a year, his injuries suggesting that he had been in a scrap with another panda.
- The setback resulted in a total rethink of the reintroduction protocol. This year, the CCRCGP released four pregnant, captive-reared pandas into a large fenced area of bamboo forest. The hope is that their future cubs will have a better chance of survival than poor Xiang-Xiang.
- Captive pandas are the subject of a vast amount of top-class research, work that has transformed the initially faltering efforts to breed this species in captivity.
- In particular, studies have revealed that smell is probably the panda’s most finely tuned sense. Like many mammals, pandas leave olfactory calling cards throughout the forest, from which others can establish the identity of the individual and its reproductive status, and get a feel for its proximity.
- Armed with this knowledge, custodians of pandas now manipulate odours in their enclosures, thereby improving the incidence of natural mating between paired pandas. In addition, research into nutrition has led to an improvement in the health and welfare of adults, while keeping newborn cubs on an exclusive diet of milk for a year or more before switching to solid food has significantly improved their chances of survival.