Part nine in a series
Nothing says “China” quite like a panda.
It’s no wonder, then, that the Chinese have used these famous black-and-white faces as emissaries around the world. There’s even a term for it: “panda diplomacy.”
Over the years, some 100 pandas have been sent to foreign countries as ambassadors of good will. Currently, around twenty-five countries host pandas, including four zoos in the United States.
I get to see them up close and personal, on their home turf.
Of course, I don’t actually get to see them in the wild. Pandas live in increasingly isolated pockets in the deep mountain valleys and alpine forests of Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces in the central part of the country. At last count, only about 1,600 of them remained in the wild.
But the Beijing Zoo has seven pandas on display on the day I visit. They are a star attraction, and they have a section of the zoo all to themselves.
I walk into the panda house just as the panda in the first enclosure walks right up to the plexiglass window. If the plexiglass wasn’t there, I’d feel the panda’s breath on my face. Although 99% of the panda’s diet consists of bamboo, they are still carnivores, and their teeth are still pointy.
Pandas have a specialized but inefficient digestive system. They’ll eat 8-10 kilograms of bamboos stems or as much as 38-40 kilograms of bamboo shoots in a day. A panda may spend as much as fourteen hours a day feeding.
The panda near the plexiglass wears a big grin, and its tongue lolls out from the side of its mouth a little. I know I’m anthropomorphizing, putting a human grin on a bear that’s probably just hot under all that fur on a day that has topped ninety.
I don’t see a sign with the panda’s name on it, so I don’t know if the bear is male or female. When the panda rolls over on its side to scratch its back on a rock, I still can’t tell. The panda wriggles back and forth on the rock, giving itself a fantastic backrub and looking like it’s having the time of its life.
Two others pandas have homes inside the panda house. One sits near a maintenance door, its forepaws wrapped around a big, shallow stainless steel bowl the way a drunk might be draped across a bar just before last call. Another curls up in the branches of a tree stand.
By their nature, pandas live solitary lives except to mate, so the zoo keeps the animals separated. In the wild, their home range may cover four to six-and-a-half miles. In the zoo, they get a few hundred square yards each.
Pandas reach sexual maturity at six and a half to seven and a half years, and their breeding season runs from mid-March to mid-May. After a gestation period that lasts four to five months, a pregnant female will hole up in a hollow tree trunk or a cave and give birth. Newborn pandas weigh about 150 grams—only about point-one percent of their mother’s weight.
The first captive breeding took place in 1963. Since then, sixty-five cubs from forty-one litters have been born, and since 2004, the cub survival rate has been 100%.
I look into the eyes of the panda by the plexiglass. Its small black eyes are almost lost in the big black patch that surrounds it, like a raccoon’s mask, only bigger. I have no way to tell what it’s thinking, but I can make a pretty safe guess that it’s happy by the vigor of its backscratching.
Early naturalists mistakenly believed the panda belonged in the raccoon family. According to the signs at the zoo—which were all newly installed just before last summer’s Olympics—there’s even some dispute today whether pandas belong to the bear family or whether they belong in a separate, closely related group.
A French naturalist and Catholic priest, Amand David, “scientifically discovered” the panda in March of 1869. He called it a cat bear, but the name was mistakenly reversed in translation to “bear cat,” which is where “panda” comes from. Russians and Germans called it the bamboo bear.
But pandas were well known throughout China and the Far East before then. Early Chinese emperors sent pandas as gestures of good will to the Japanese. The panda was seen as a symbol of peace, and anyone who flew a flag with a panda on it would be granted a ceasefire in battle.
When Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing came to Washington, D.C., following Richard Nixon’s trip to China, it paved the way for a modern wave of panda diplomacy. Since the mid-80s, though, the Chinese government only sends pandas on loan, in exchange for one million American dollars, ostensibly used for panda preservation.
The Chinese government also effectively used pandas as a P.R. tool for the country’s successful bid to host the 2008 summer Olympics. In 1988, China sent a pair of pandas, Qunqun and Xixi, to Calgary for the winter games. That year, while the pandas were there to coincide with the winter Olympics, the zoo attracted a record one-point-three-five million visitors.
The effort helped generate Olympic buzz that the Chinese then followed up on in the summer of 2001. Pandas Benben and Wenwen went to Moscow for “culture week” as the Olympic committee made its final selection. The extra attention the pandas generated supposedly helped tip the committee’s decision in China’s favor.
Today, the Beijing Zoo has a special Olympic panda pavilion. Linking the main panda house with the new pavilion is a wall comprised of 2008 pieces of hand-painted pottery bricks (2008, of course, being the year the Olympics came to Beijing). The paintings, by children from Beijing and Sichuan, one of the home provinces of the pandas, feature Olympic rings and torches, hand prints, a thumbs-up, scenes of athletic glory, well-wishes in Chinese and English, and hundreds of other designs. “One world, one dream,” one student painted. “I *heart* China.”
The same year the Olympics were held, a massive earthquake devastated the province. The inscription by the wall reads: “To look forward to Beijing 2008, to fight the Sichuan quake disaster, to preserve nature, and to build up a harmonic and beautiful homeland.”
Inside the pavilion, workers clean a large indoor enclosure while a panda munches on a bamboo stem, although when one of the workers wants out, the panda blocks the door. The worker, apparently familiar with the animal, has to try and pull the panda away like a sack of flour. The panda offers modest resistance, but it’s enough to throw the worker off-balance and he stumbles a few steps backwards. The panda goes back to its bamboo stem.
Three other pandas occupy enclosures outside, and two others have indoor habitats. I suspect that zoo officials rotate them so everyone has time outside and inside.
But just as impressive as the pandas, I think, is the government’s attempts to protect and preserve them. “Excessive logging and human activity” has created isolated “island-like” pockets of panda habitat in the wild. It’s difficult for pandas to cross from one pocket to another, thus decreasing the ability for the species to maintain genetic diversity.
In response, the government has set aside fifty-six nature preserves that cover fifty-one percent of known panda habitat—some 2,900,400 hectacres of protected lands. That’s a pretty substantial preservation commitment in a country as overcrowded as China. The question, really, is whether it will be too little too late.
Hopefully the panda will be a success story. Although uniquely Chinese in character, pandas have proven that they can capture the hearts of the whole world.