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. 

Political panda article spread


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.

Panda power
As modern China has grown in stature and strength, so, too, the fate of its national treasure is looking increasingly secure.
The penalty for poaching pandas is among the toughest imposed for any wildlife crime anywhere: China’s Wild Animal Protection Act of 1989 rules that anyone caught bumping off a panda – or even smuggling a skin – would face at least 10 years in prison, the possibility of life behind bars or, in extreme cases, death.
A nationwide logging ban imposed in 1998 has made it possible for the country’s State Forestry Administration to expand its network of protection for wild pandas. There are now more than 60 dedicated reserves that cover over 70 per cent of the suitable habitat and ring-fence about half of the wild panda population.
At the last count, it was estimated that there could be around 1,600 adult pandas left in the wild, a population that shows a surprisingly high level of genetic diversity. In short, while China remains strong the long-term prospects for the panda’s survival are also good.
If, through some human failing, wild pandas do disappear from the remote pockets of bamboo that they still call home, one thing is certain. The species’ rise to global superstardom over the course of the past 140 years, propelled by its unparalleled ability to reproduce its image in human minds, guarantees that it will live on in our global culture for as long as we can sustain one.
Newborn pandas are tiny compared with most species in the order Carnivora. Each one weighs 90–130g, roughly 1,000th the body mass of its mother.
Efforts to release captive-bred pandas in the wild have so far come to nothing.
  • 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.
No expense is spared in the attempt to learn more about panda biology.
  • 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.



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