Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Way of the Panda by Henry Nicholls

According to my parents, the panda was the subject of one of my formative experiences. There was a panda on the television but when I tried to touch it, I found, of course, that I couldn't. I was distraught; an important early lesson on the deceptions of life. Soon after that, a toy panda was bought for me and she became the love of my early life.

But this book is about real pandas, the ones with skin, bones, teeth and fur, the sort I came face to face with in Chongqing a year or so ago (pictures are from this trip), and fascinating it is too.

It starts with Armand David, a French Roman Catholic priest and intrepid adventurer who was the first westerner to encounter a panda and sent its carcass back to France. The setting is, of course, China, and one of the very interesting features of this book is the way it puts each story in historical context, which are described to just the right degree; in this case the opium wars and the Boxer rebellion. The writing generally is entertaining, without being too flippant.

The second chapter deals with how this strange black and white bear-like animal was classified. I thought I knew the answer to this, but it turns out I didn't. The third chapter describes the zeal of hunting the panda, and although written for the twenty-first century reader, it beautifully conveys the nineteenth century mindset - when the world had rather more dangerous wild animals. In chapter 4 the reader is introduced to the indomitable Mrs Harkness - a feminine tale of derring-do set during the second world war.

That was part one, how the panda was extracted from China into the rest of the world. The second part is how the panda first fared as a captive in the rest of the world.

Chapter 5 describes the arrival of the panda in Europe, and the influence of Desmond Morris and the TV programme 'Zoo Time' on the psyche of the nation. I can vouch for this: my brother David was a particularly avid watcher of the programme, and I think that it was through watching this that he became interested in science, then medicine and eventually became a doctor. The panda in question, Chi-Chi, was kept in quite sumptuous conditions in London Zoo, while back in China, eccentric ideas during Mao's 'Great Leap Forward' (including Lysenko's 'Close Planting' and Maltsev's 'Deep Ploughing') ensured that as well as the further degradation of the panda's habitat, 20- 40 million people died of starvation.

The sixth chapter introduces the origin of the World Wildlife Fund and Peter Scott's panda design as emblem, while the seventh and eight deal with various fascinating details of panda biology; including the initial efforts to get Chi-Chi to mate with An-An, the panda from Russia, and then her eventual preservation in the Natural History Museum in London.

The final part, 'Protection', deals with how pandas were uniquely used as a symbol of friendship and conservation and a political bartering chip. One of the first examples was when the American people, were presented with Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling after Richard Nixon became the first American president to visit China. However, these two panda stars fared no better than Chi-Chi's in terms of reproductive success. Pandas were then hired out as part of commercial ventures, an unsavory practice which led to collaborations of a more scientific nature which determined, amongst other things, the importance of smell, sound and sight of pandas. particularly during mating.

Chapter 11 described how conditions have improved for the panda in captivity, which was very interesting; the replacement of porridge and meat with a more natural diet of bamboo presented in three sittings, for instance, and the provision of a stimulating environment.

Thanks to these measures, and the careful observation of the rituals of wild pandas, the success rate of matings in captivity has risen to 90%. Smell was found to be very important, and there was an excellent section dealing with how pandas use smell and leads them to performing handstands in the wild. They not only deposit secretions on the objects around them but also on themselves, and swabs revealed that the body of a panda is a 'kaleidoscope of scent patches and zones', with ears smelling strongly of urine, and black eye patches having another smell of their own.

This leads naturally on to one of the subjects of the final chapter viz panda poo, with 'molecular scatology' yielding a huge amount of information about pandas in the wild cheaply, easily and quickly. After a quick resume about the problems in assessing the real number of pandas in the wild, the chapter ends with cautious optimism. The number of pandas in captivity is now self-sustaining, and logging, which was one of the biggest threats to the panda habitat, has been banned. The giant panda is still an endangered species, but on the mountains above Ya'an City up the Baoxing River there is the Giant Panda Sanctuaries heritage site which has some of the highest standards of environmental protection on the planet.

The book ends with an appreciation of the virtual panda but also a plea for us all to recognise the difference between a real wild panda and a virtual one, and points out that without the wild one the virtual one, like my treasured childhood companion, would be a symbol of loss.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an informative review. Thanks.

Tue Dec 06, 05:21:00 a.m.  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

And thank you, Andy! It is good of you to take the trouble to let me know. I much appreciate it.

Tue Dec 06, 08:01:00 a.m.  

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