Everyone now accepts, or worries about, the economic power of China. For decades, though, Chinese diplomats have had a power over the world that surpasses that of dollars and yuan. When they really wanted to get something done, they brought out their pandas. Citizens and statesmen from distant nations clamored for these mammals with all the longing that children have for their favorite teddy bears. There was an international "Awwwwww!" whenever a panda came on the world stage for a transfer. Pandas are far from being mere political tokens, but that role is designated in the subtitle of _The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China's Political Animal_ (Pegasus Books) by science journalist Henry Nicholls. This enthralling book is about politics, and history, but it is also about natural history and ecology. Pandas are not just extraordinarily cute, they are biologically extraordinary. The affectionate human response to them counts for plenty, but overall, pandas have not prospered with humans as neighbors and hunters and collectors. Chronicled here, too, however, are stories of the many humans making an effort to understand this inscrutable animal, and the story of the panda is not one without hope.
In all those fabulous Imperial vases and dishes, no artist depicted the panda until the nineteenth century. It is just astonishing that it was only in 1869 that a Westerner saw a panda. He was able to send the specimen back to Paris, starting an argument as to whether such a strange creature was really a bear or was closer to the lesser panda and raccoon (DNA has since said it is a bear). Naturally biologists wanted to learn more, and game hunters wanted the trophy. When getting dead panda specimens had been accomplished, the next goal was go get living ones. In 1937, thousands came to see "Su-Lin," in a Chicago zoo, a pattern that has recurred for any zoo that gets a new panda. For all the value pandas have had for China, it has been only recently that the Chinese have valued them enough to take steps to protect them. Mao's "Great Leap Forward" was a huge step backward. The philosophy that nature was there to be conquered was simply dead wrong; forests were leveled for crops and for industrial fuel, with little actual economic improvement and with disaster for the panda's habitat. Nicholls stresses that the panda's regions are secondary only to the tropics for species diversity. Thus it was an easy step to imagine that pandas given to zoos would serve as breeding stock for pandas to be reinserted into the wild. This strategy proved to be difficult. Pandas have proved by surviving for millions of years that they are not averse to sex; one of the researchers who got a rare glimpse of panda coitus in the wild noted a couple mating forty times. Still, pandas have proved to be one of the most difficult of animals to breed in captivity. This has been a boon for headline writers, because the public takes gossipy interest in the private lives of panda couples. When a female returned to England after failing to mate with a male in Moscow, headlines were "From Russia, Without Love" or "Return of the Virgin Panda." You can read here about how attempts to bring baby pandas into the world are improving (and you might squirm a little as you read the details of a process called electroejaculation). Whether the increasing success will mean anything to wild populations is still unanswered. Popping a panda bred and raised in a zoo into the bamboo wilds is still just a big gamble; we just don't know enough about what we are doing. Nicholls spends many pages examining the "virtual" panda as a toy or an animated film star. You can find panda brands of milk, Chinese take-out, cigarettes, and toilet paper, but the most famous of the panda brands is the logo of the World Wildlife Fund. The WWF has had a panda as its logo since the organization was founded in 1961, and of course the panda fits as a symbol of endangerment. It took, however, almost twenty years for the WWF to start studying the panda's plight.
It is startling that for all the fame of the panda, and its shaky ecological situation, and for all the affection the beast invokes in even the hard-hearted, we don't even know how many are left in the wild. The bears are just as elusive as ever, and even the most recent counts, everyone realizes, are estimates that may be way off. If we don't have a good count, how ever are we going to be able to assess what helps boost the population? It's one of Nicholls's fine lessons here. We feel familiar with the panda because of all its commercial and cutesy applications, but the animal is almost as mysterious as when that first skin was sent to Paris less than 150 years ago. Keeping up a population of wild pandas will be iffy. After Nicholls's explanations about the research into the creatures, though, it is hard to argue with his conclusion: "The continued existence of wild pandas, and the opportunity to study them, just makes the world a more interesting place in which to live."