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Long live China’s giant panda – 大熊猫万岁

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

China’s panda, since 1961 the heraldic animal of the world’s largest nature conservation organization “World Wide Fund for Nature” (WWF), is no longer threatened with extinction. According to Beijing figures, the black and white bears are multiplying at an ever-faster rate. There are currently almost 2,500 specimens living in the wild and as offspring, enough to preserve the species. The People’s Republic is now scoring points for its survival just before the start of the UN Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species COP 15 in Kunming. In any case, the panda is China’s perfect image carrier.

This is why panda haters are annoyed. Countless people, on the other hand, profess to be panda lovers. And those who support everything Beijing is doing are called panda huggers. Once there were panda hunters. But they are, in fact, extinct. Even the sons of a US president were among them.

Pat Nixon visited the panda enclosure at Beijing Zoo on the second day of her husband and US President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China. It was February 22, 1972, and she fell completely under the charm of the giant black and white bears and bought lots of panda toys as souvenirs. Premier Zhou Enlai was informed of this. Beijing had long secretly planned to give the Nixons two real bears as a state gift. Now, Zhou let the First Lady know specially. During the farewell banquet, he offered her a pack of “Panda” cigarettes, Mao’s favorite brand. Since she didn’t smoke, she declined bewildered, as US department head at the Foreign Ministry, Ding Yanhong, later described the scene. Undeterred, Zhou pointed to the advertising logo on the pack with the image of two pandas. “But you like these bears, don’t you?” Mrs. Nixon understood. After the banquet, she told her husband. “Imagine this: They want to give us two pandas.”

All pandas bred in foreign zoos must also be sent back to China to preserve the species. The Austrian-born panda Fu Bao has been living in the Dujiangyan Nature Reserve in Sichuan since 2017 and apparently does not miss the Vienna Zoo.

Seven weeks later, on April 16, 1972, the pair of bears, Lingling and Xingxing arrived at the Washington Zoo. They were the first pandas gifted by the People’s Republic to a Western country. To greet them, 8,000 U.S. citizens cheered the arrivals alongside the presidential couple. From then on, the US was in love with the panda. Today, 61 pandas live on loan outside China in 18 countries. Eleven of them are housed in four zoos across the US.

“Teddy” Roosevelt’s sons hunted giant pandas

Long before the Nixons, a US presidential family had made a very different panda story. Safari hunters Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt, sons of U.S. President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, who governed from 1901 to 1908, boasted of being the first foreigners to kill a giant panda in Mianning, Sichuan, on April 13, 1929. On behalf of the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, they ambushed a full-grown panda. They allegedly shot the giant bear at the same time to share what was then undoubted glory. In their book, Trailing the Giant Panda, published in late 1929, they pose over their trophy in a full-page photo. When I asked animal researchers at the Chengdu panda station about it, they said, “We don’t like to talk about it. It wasn’t until 1939 that China placed the panda under protection. But the incident back then may be part of the reason why so many U.S. citizens are helping us save the panda from extinction today.”

Two sons of US President Theodor (Teddy) Roosevelt, called “Bear” of all things, were big-game hunters and the first foreigners to shoot and pose with a giant panda as their trophy in Sichuan in April 1929.

The efforts have paid off. The all-clear for the survival of the species is given by the magazine “National Geographic” in its September issue. It is based on information from the nature conservation official Cui Shuhong from the Ministry of Ecology and Environment. Last July, he publicly confirmed for the first time that Beijing had officially downgraded the “status of the wild giant panda” from “endangered” to “vulnerable”.

Excerpt from the expedition map of the sons of U.S. President Theodor Roosevelt, big-game hunters who shot a giant panda in Sichuan on April 13, 1929.

It is based on figures by China’s national panda censuses, which are organized every ten years. The first census in the 1980s caused worldwide alarm, with only 1,114 bears counted. But Beijing was able to breathe easier after the fourth panda census in 2013. 200 gamekeepers and ecologists had spent three years combing 66 nature reserves and mountain forests in the panda provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanxi. They rediscovered 1,864 pandas in the wild. In addition, there are 633 bears re-bred in zoos and panda stations by early 2021. The current panda population is sufficient to guarantee the bears’ genetic diversity and survival. Beijing hopes that the fifth panda census, now planned for 2022, will result in further record numbers. To this end, it has expanded the area of its nature reserves. Bamboo, which makes up 90 percent of the pandas’ diet, has also proved resistant to climate and environmental influences.

Approved conservation groups such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature had already downgraded the panda on its “Red List” in 2016 as no longer in danger of survival, but China’s authorities called it “hasty conclusions that would only jeopardize efforts to protect the panda.”

Panda Diplomacy since Empress Wu Zetian

Five years later, the all-clear is more fitting for Beijing’s calculations. In the run-up to the upcoming UN UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15), Xinhua proudly announced in English on July 9 that, thanks to China’s efforts, pandas are no longer endangered: “finally some good news!” It is hosting the UN meeting, which starts on October 11th in Kunming – but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only with online welcoming speeches.

Panda bears have always turned out to be image ambassadors for China’s “soft power” policies, found an Oxford University study that examined the intentions behind China’s panda exports to international zoos.

For only ten years did Beijing’s leadership give away pandas as a state gift, with the US being the first recipient in 1972. Although Mao sent pandas to zoos in the Soviet Union as early as 1957 and to North Korea in 1965, it was not until the Nixon trip that the concept of panda diplomacy emerged. By 1982, heads of state from nine countries, including Germany, received pairs of pandas as state presents.

The People’s Republic only revived an ancient tradition. According to imperial records, Tang Empress Wu Zetian had a pair of pandas along with 70 skins presented as a gift to the then Japanese Emperor Tenmu on October 22, 685. Even the time was noted. At ten o’clock in the morning, the animals left the then capital Changan (Xi’an) in two cages and were transported to Japan by ship via Yangzhou. From 685 to 1982, a total of 40 pandas were given away by China.

Since 1982, foreign zoos have only been allowed to obtain pandas based on long-term loan agreements. Beijing has committed itself to the earmarked use of the loan fees. 60 percent are used for the protection of nature reserves, 40 percent are spent on panda research.

The ecological debate is leaving its mark. In front of the panda enclosure in Chengdu, a poster warns against mankind’s destructive treatment of nature. It was written by Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s comrade-in-arms. In his treatise on “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man,” Engels writes: “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory, nature takes its revenge on us.” It is well known that the Chinese listen to Marx and Engels.


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