Who doesn’t love the Giant Panda? These beautiful animals are often pictured lying around, slumped dozing over trees- the epitome of relaxation. As China’s unofficial mascot and the symbol of the World Wildlife Fund, the giant Panda is one of the most beloved animals in the world. However, do you know that they are also one of the more endangered species in the world? There is only an estimated 1000-2000 living in the wild.
The Giant Panda is protected as a national treasure in their native China. However due to habitat loss and fragmentation, illegal poaching and deforestation, the Panda population has been pushed to the risk of extinction.
China’s love affair with the Panda is a fairly recent occurrence, and while strong, is not indicative of a deep culture of animal welfare. China has a no animal welfare laws and Pandas are among a tiny minority of animals unlikely to end up in as a cultural dish.
The elevation of the black and white bear to China’s national symbol happened gradually only over the last century. In ancient times, Chinese people feared Pandas and described them as metal-devouring tapirs (herbivorous mammal resembling a pig). The bears were known to descend from the mountains to forage for utensils made of bamboo, iron, or copper, and could chew the nails off a city gate.
Chinese used to hunt Pandas for their pelts because it was believed that sleeping on Panda fur could ward off ghosts and help regulate a woman’s menstrual cycle. They also thought Panda urine could dissolve a swallowed needle.
It was in 1957 London, however, that a stateless bear’s sudden popularity made the Panda the poster child for all things endangered. Having been caught in the wild as a baby in Sichuan and housed in Peking Zoo, ‘Chi- chi’ was originally destined for an American zoo, but at the time Washington had banned all trade with Communist China. Chi-chi was branded ‘communist goods’ and was refused entry to the United States. The London Zoo made a successful bid for Chi-chi in 1958, and she quickly
o’s star attraction. As it happened, London was also the home of the newly formed World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which still lacked a logo. Deciding that there was no better candidate than the lovable Chi-chi, the WWF
an international symbol of wildlife conservation ever since. Chi - chi went on to become the London Zoo's star attraction and Britain's most loved zoo animal.
The WWF’s choice of logo helped align international concern about the species with a new Chinese effort to address dwindling Panda numbers and the destruction of their habitat - the bamboo forests. China made giant Pandas a protected species in 1962, the first captive-bred Panda cub was born in 1963, and poaching was criminalised in 1987, setting strict new penalties of at least ten years in jail or even death. Even so, it took time to stamp out the practice of panda poaching. In 1987, three smuggled pelts were reported seized by Hong Kong customs and China made 203 arrests for Panda hunting in 1988 - recovering 146 pelts.
Although intentionally harming a Panda is now unthinkable, other bear species do not enjoy the same protections. Chinese today still consume the bile extracted from moon bears, sun bears, and brown bears – believing the substance to be therapeutic. Bile extraction is a painful and invasive process, and some bear bile farms keep bears locked in tiny cages for years at a time. The bear bile industry is completely unnecessary – plentiful and inexpensive synthetic and herbal alternatives to bear bile are readily available.
It is a source of great sadness (and double standards) to see that these bears suffer immensely at the hands of this cruel practice. Pandas and other bears share so many similarities, but are treated so very differently.
China spends a great deal of money on Panda preservation, from breeding parks to research, but also earns millions of dollars annually by leasing the animals to overseas zoos and by displaying them as tourist attractions at home. Today there are approximately 40 Panda reserves across South Western China. Some are Nature Reserves providing a safe habitat for wild Giant Pandas; other reserves protect the wild Giant Pandas while providing scientific research centres to breed and study their behaviour.
Over the past several decades, Chinese scientists have developed and honed the difficult techniques required to breed Pandas in captivity and in 2010 made a breakthrough that may help Pandas bred in captivity to return to the wild. They have also developed a program that utilises ‘foster Panda Mothers’. Pandas are frequently born in pairs but mothers struggle to care for both cubs; simply - another captive Panda female fosters one of her cubs.
The national embrace of the Panda has generated a shared affection that could provide a template for saving other species in the future. There are signs that Panda love may be spreading to other species. Eating shark’s fin has sharply waned in popularity due in part to anti-cruelty campaigns backed by Chinese celebrities like basketball star Yao Ming. There are large protests surrounding the annual Yulin Dog Meat Festival, sometimes physically preventing those transporting dogs to enter the city. China announced in April 2014 that anyone who eats endangered species, or buys them for other purposes, is punishable by up to 10 years in jail. The interpretation applied to 420 different endangered species, including tigers and golden monkeys.
The good news is that giant Panda numbers are increasing. Slowly but surely this remarkable species is edging away from the brink of extinction - thanks to a host of successful conservation projects.
But Pandas still face a number of threats, particularly habitat loss and fragmentation, so extra efforts are needed to ensure that they continue to survive and thrive. But simply providing more land for Pandas is not enough. Only by effectively addressing the needs of local people and sustainably enhancing their livelihoods can we hope to guarantee the long term survival of the giant Panda.