The fate of the last giant pandas of China

In China’s rural west, embedded in the crumpled mountain range that rises up to the Tibetan plateau, is a small town called Baoxing. Here, daily life is dominated by the mining industry. Rusty trucks bring in vast hunks of raw marble, freshly hewn from the surrounding mountains. Factories along the roadside cut them into perfect worktop slabs destined for distant designer kitchens. A thick film of white dust coats everything, including the huge Baoxing River, which carries the dust off through a seemingly infinite series of hydro-electric dams towards the Yangtze.

This much is typical of the frenetic pace of industry across China, a country whose economy has been growing at a staggering pace for decades. But Baoxing deserves special attention, for the steep, bamboo-clad slopes above the town are part of the best-preserved panda habitat on earth. Roadside artisans reflect this, fashioning miniature pandas from small chunks of marble, stone models of the live animals that dwell in the hills. In Baoxing, two sides of China are on show: one determined to extract prosperity from the natural world and another intent on conservation even at the expense of development.

As an exclusively Chinese animal and one that has, since the 1950s, emerged as the country’s “national treasure”, the giant panda tells us much about the progress of modern China. It was through this valley, in June 1935, that the Communist Party of China’s Red Army passed on its “Long March” to escape the Chinese Nationalist party. One of the few to survive the year-long, 6,000-mile ordeal was Mao Zedong, who carried the CPC to power in 1949. Within a decade, the giant panda was well on its way to becoming a national ambassador. It was perfect for the job: rare, beautiful and, importantly for Mao, it carried no imperial baggage whatsoever.

Painting the panda was not only acceptable during the Cultural Revolution, it was positively encouraged, and by the 1960s its alluring black-and-white form had become synonymous with China. Better still, the west had become increasingly obsessed with the species, thanks largely to animals collected in the vicinity of Baoxing. In 1869, Père Armand David, a French missionary, found specimens there that became the basis for the formal scientific description of this species. In 1936, Ruth Harkness, an American fashion designer, brought the first live panda, Su-Lin, out of China, a 3lb cub who ­captured western hearts.

Mao, quite sensibly, exploited this interest with gusto. Between 1957 and 1983, he gave away more than 20 animals – most of them sourced from the mountains around Baoxing – to foster ties with a string of carefully chosen countries. Most famously, he gave a pair to Richard Nixon, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, after his historic visit to China in 1972. The UK also benefited from panda diplomacy when, following prime minister Edward Heath’s visit to China in 1974, London Zoo received Chia-Chia and Ching-Ching.

Mindful of China’s increasingly open stance towards the west, the World Wildlife Fund requested permission to study the creature which inspired its logo. But during rounds of intense negotiations in late 1979, it transpired that the privilege would cost the charity $1m, money that China put towards the construction of a state-of-the-art breeding facility near the Wolong Nature Reserve, several hours’ drive north of Baoxing. It was a price worth paying, as the research collaboration between China and the WWF, which began the following year, greatly increased our knowledge of the life of the panda in the wild.

At the same time, in keeping with China’s increasingly tough economic stance, the CPC stopped giving away pandas and moved instead to an explicitly commercial model, renting out pandas to foreign zoos on lucrative short-term loans. In 1998 the policy changed and pairs of pandas started to leave China on long-term loans, which improved the chances of reproduction in captivity. Today, China is so self-sufficient that it could happily run the panda show alone, but these loans still make sound financial sense. Most US zoos with pandas, for example, currently pay $500,000 a pair annually to show off these rarities. However confident the Chinese might feel about their own economy, it’s hard to see why they would turn down this revenue.

As China’s prosperity has grown, so the environment – with the giant panda as its public face – has been moving up the political agenda. There has been a lot of work to do. Between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s, vast swathes of Chinese forest were felled, including about half of the giant panda’s natural habitat. This deforestation is thought to have played a big role in the devastating floods that spread across the Yangzte River basin in 1998, killing thousands and costing tens of billions of dollars to repair. Without trees to sponge up rainwater, Sichuan’s bare mountainsides funnelled it directly into the river system.

China responded to this crisis with some of the world’s boldest environmental initiatives. The Natural Forest Protection Programme, a nationwide logging ban launched in 1998, put in place tough new measures for the protection of forests and halted most commercial logging in the upper reaches of the Yangtze, the heart of panda country. In addition, China’s Grain for Green programme has converted crops on steep slopes to grass and forest. Since 1999, when pilot projects began in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi (the three provinces that still have wild pandas), China has spent $40bn on the programme.

It’s hard to know how successful these measures will be in preventing more flooding, but they have certainly improved the plight of the panda. Before the nationwide logging ban, loggers were reluctant to acknowledge that the forests they worked in were home to pandas, as to do so would have endangered their livelihoods. With the ban in place, however, pandas suddenly became an asset, as the same workers looked for other sources of income. This helps to explain why the number of protected areas dedicated to giant pandas leapt from about 20 before the ban to more than 60 today, with several more being added every year. It also made it possible for China to propose the mountains around Baoxing as a Unesco World Heritage Site, one that occupies one million hectares embracing seven nature reserves, nine parks and almost 30 per cent of the world’s wild panda population. With more than 5,000 plant species – about the same number as there are in France – the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries World ­Heritage Site has richer botanical treasures than those found anywhere else outside the tropics.

But China’s ambitions for its underdeveloped west do not sit comfortably with these impressive green achievements. In 2000, the Western China Development Plan got under way, a huge initiative to pull the western half of the country up to the standards of the relatively developed east. China makes bold claims for its environmental protection as it goes about this massive project, but there are real tensions at play, and the devastating Sichuan earthquake of 2008, which left some 90,000 people dead and at least five million homeless, has made it all the harder to pursue development and conservation simultaneously. China must now rebuild the infrastructure of this fragile region – ruptured dams, fractured roads, entire towns. What impact will this have on pandas?

China is fortunate in being able to avoid the destruction of flora and fauna that characterised the industrial revolutions in Britain and other western countries. There are signs that it is determined not to make the same mistakes. It is in places such as Baoxing, where China’s raw industrial spirit meets its precious, fragile ecology, that we will find out if they succeed. Pandas have been living here for thousands of years. At the last official census a decade ago, there were just a few hundred left in the region. The chances of seeing one are virtually nil, so why bother to try to save them? The answer, surely, is the powerful symbolism of the giant panda, which rests on its continued survival outside captivity. Lose the panda in the wild and modern China will have lost its own identity.

Henry Nicholls is author of ‘The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China’s Political Animal’ (Profile).

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