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the way of the panda

18 january 2012

Henry Nicholls's "curious history" of the giant panda is a curious book in both senses: avid in its thirst for things panda, and eccentric in its construction, arguments, and attitudes. It's all the better for both its curiosities.

Among the many oddities of this book, one is that if you search for it on the Internet, you are likely to come up instead with references to a DVD of a knockoff of Kung Fu Panda, an animated video of which an IMDb reviewer says "this was beyond horrible, the panda was creepy, the music was even worse and the plot and dialog in the movie was deplorable." So to set the matter straight: The Way of the Panda, the book by Henry Nichols, is neither creepy nor deplorable, nor about an animated panda, nor does it contain any kung fu.

But the availability of pandas for all of the above is actually one of Nicholls's themes. He considers the merchandizable, the branded panda; he looks at panda satire and panda kitsch; he frowns at human contempt for a creature that has been around millions of years longer than we have and has found a way to digest more of bamboo than just the occasional stir-fried sprout, thank you very much. (Human love for the panda's adorable furriness is easier to account for.)

The Way of the Panda is structured somewhat like a Reaktion Animal series book (they haven't yet done Panda). Nicholls starts with natural history. Well, actually he starts with traditional representations of the panda in classic Chinese art – to note that there aren't any. The panda is now the most famous animal of the largest nation on earth, but for almost all of the immense history of China, it made no impression at all upon human culture.

No wonder, of course: pandas are almost never seen in the wild. They have long been known to rural folk in the the western interior of China, but mainly by reputation. They aren't prized for their meat. There are much easier animals to catch if you want fur rugs. They don't bother people, compete for resources, or devour their crops (in fact, a big mammal that eats half its weight solely in bamboo every day would be a godsend to many a gardener). So it was the late 19th century before Père David, the French missionary who had already "discovered" one of the world's rarest species of deer, ran across one of the big guys in a thicket and decided it was a big parti-colored bear.

For the next century and more, scientific opinion was at odds on the rather esoteric question of whether giant pandas were indeed bears, or a very large kind of raccoon. There is a creature called a "lesser panda" that is like a giant raccoon, and nomenclature drove taxonomy for many decades; I remember being assured by books and movies that pandas were raccoons. DNA has settled the question. Cladistically, pandas are bears; they share a common ancestor with bears more recently than they share one with the lesser panda and the raccoon. But ecologically and morphologically, they have converged with lesser pandas in a way that other bears haven't, so their effective nature is blurrier than it might seem from genetics alone.

Pandas, in other words, are mysterious and inspire controversy. Nicholls charts the ensuing 140+ years of social and scientific struggles over the panda. The emblematic individual for his whole book is Chi-Chi, a panda sent across Europe on its way to the United States in 1958. John Foster Dulles, determined to teach the Commies a lesson, refused Chi-Chi entry into the States, so she spent the next 14 years in the London Zoo. (And she's spent the last 40 stuffed in a London museum.) Almost casually – given how brands and logos have since become a lucrative fine art – Chi-Chi's image became the symbol of the World Wildlife Federation. One of the obscurest of all animals became one of the most charismatic of megafauna.

One problem with this superstar status, as Nicholls notes, is that pandas have been the focus of relatively lavish research, almost none of which has shed much light on their current conditions in the wild. Zoos around the world have put hugely disproportionate resources toward sustainable captive panda populations – in part because every kid who visits a zoo wants to see the pandas. (I did too; I saw the "Nixon pandas" Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling on several occasions in Washington, DC, a few of them long after I was a kid anymore.) But how many pandas still live in the wild? Where, exactly? What is their lifecycle like? How best to help them survive?

Nicholls admires the current Chinese government in terms that approach flattery – probably not a bad idea if you want to write a book about pandas. But where Chinese bureaucrats and researchers have admitted panda-related mistakes, he recounts them. Habitat destruction is among the worst. The depths of war and autocratic Communism, even the aftermath of great earthquakes, have often been good for pandas: they've sent humans on the retreat, and prevented entrepreneurs from exploiting the creatures. But liberalization of the Chinese economy put great ecological pressure on the panda. China today, though, is nakedly capitalist but centrally controlled in ways that bode better for wildlife than one might suppose. Having lost the baiji to industrialization, the Chinese are determined to protect their highest-profile animal. Millions of acres of reserve have been set aside for pandas at the stroke of a pen – and with captive populations flourishing thanks to substantial subsidies, too, the panda is no longer as critically endangered as many other large animals. Its future is hopeful. No nation wants an extinct animal as its mascot; the passenger pigeon is the state bird of nowhere.

Nicholls, Henry. The Way of the Panda: The curious history of China's political animal. New York: Pegasus, 2011.