China’s adorable ambassadors

It was a moment to savour. The First Lady of the United States of America was chatting with China’s Premier at an official banquet. The place and setting were historic. US President Richard Nixon was in Beijing in February 1972 on a visit that would alter the global fault lines of power.
Premier Zhou en Lai, like many of his contemporaries, was a heavy smoker. Pointing to a pack of Chinese cigarettes that depicted two pandas, he said something that led Ms Nixon to scream with joy. Gesturing at the pandas, he said to her, “We will give you two”.

Not long after Sing Sing and Ling Ling arrived at the National Zoo in Washington to the delight of America’s children and adults alike. They were the first of their species to be sent out as ambassadors of goodwill since the revolution in 1949. China’s rulers then as now knew something simple about the pandas: they are charismatic and unique.
To this day, all pandas outside of China and their progeny are on loan. They and any cubs they might have remain Chinese through and through. In her book The Week That Changed the World, Margaret Macmillan recounts the encounter of the Americans and Chinese that winter, showing how they overcame decades of mistrust and hostility. The pandas were only the icing but what an icing it was. Sing Sing and Ling Ling are long gone, the latter dying 11 years ago, but they served as China’s furred and four-footed ambassadors to America’s children.
In 1980, China also opened its doors to Western scholarship, its own scholars collaborating with the legendary George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society to study pandas in the Woolong Reserve, Sichuan. He would later movingly write of how, “that the panda has been enshrined as an icon of our environment is not surprising. The animal has the power to touch and transform all those who gaze upon it: it has only to appear to brighten a scene”.
Pandas are indeed special and for a reason. Animals have become icons in our conservation-conscious age. Beauty or rarity, elegance or power, a sense of history or hope for the future, any or each of these may influence a choice: Bhutan has taken the sure-footed ungulate, Rwanda the mountain gorilla; As many as six Asian countries have the same national animal — the tiger. But the giant panda scores higher: it was chosen as the symbol of the World Wildlife Fund. It stands for hope for the wild in general and not in any one nation.
But giant pandas are found nowhere on earth but in one country. In its own animal iconography, China stands apart. Peter Purdue, a premier historian of nature and the Empire, points to the creature that dominated the imagination of the past, hold your breath, for it exists only in legend: the dragon. Yet, Chinese sciences at least till early in the last millennium were among the most developed and their knowledge of real life plants, soils and animals was for long without an equal. So much so that even the Sao La, one of the world’s rarest mammals and described for the first time by American scientists in Laos in the early 1990s, was depicted with astonishing accuracy in early Chinese pharmacopoeia.
Given this, it is no surprise that the giant panda and its value were known to early Chinese rulers. In the 7th century of the Common Era, some seven centuries ago, Empress Wu even had a panda shipped to a country her country regarded as barbarian. It was an island nation off China’s shore: Japan. So the idea of presenting pandas to a foreigner as an act of patronage as much as friendship predated the coming of Communism in 1949. Premier Zhou en Lai was steeped in his country’s long history as well as he was versed in Marxism.
Wolong, a 2,000-square kilometre reserve was created in 1963 when China was still emerging from the shadows of a human-made famine that claimed over 50 million lives. Nearly two decades hence, Wolong became the first research centre in the world where scientists would study and document the life, behaviour and ecology of this remarkable but fragile species.
Researchers found extensive panda deaths after the bamboo flowering of the late 1980s. Yet it is not such natural cycles as much as human pressures on its habitat that endangered the animal, with its range in Sichuan shrinking by 50 per cent in a decade. In clear-cut forests, the bamboo took much longer to grow back, depriving the pandas of food and cover. Poachers did their bit, too.
Will the giant panda make it in the new century? Writing of his own experiences, Schaller was not very optimistic, even remarking as scientists often do that our knowledge of pandas in the wild increased just as human action or inaction was inflicting serious and, perhaps, lasting damage on its numbers in the wild. Yet, the story is far from over.
The giant panda’s fate in the wild as much as its “peaceful rise” is a test of China’s ability to surprise the world. Managing human aspirations to reduce the impact on nature requires setting land and waterscape aside. But making space for pandas will be a litmus test of a huge country’s deftness in striking a balance.
Enabling a living icon, even a panda, to work is not the only thing that counts but it sure can help. The ghosts of Sing Sing and Ling Ling might be inclined to wave a paw in agreement.

Mahesh Rangarajan is an environmental historian and co-editor of India’s Environmental History to be published in early 2011

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