A Natural Icon ——Commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Scientific Discovery of the Giant Panda

A panda bends down to drink water. A healthy panda usually spends less than three minutes to drink water before going back into a bamboo forest. Zhou Mengqi

Twenty-seven-year-old female giant panda Bai Yun and her six-year-old son Xiao Liwu, residents of the San Diego Zoo, left for China at the end of April when a long-term conservation agreement with China ended. American netizens had expressed sadness about the animals’ departure. Some called it the end of an era: “The last pandas at the San Diego Zoo are heading back to China.”

Discovery of the Giant Panda

Despite now serving as an icon of China, the giant panda was initially “discovered” by a foreigner.

On February 22, 1869, when French missionary Armand David left Chengdu in southwestern China for the Qionglai Mountains, he could have never imagined that he would become the first person to discover a species that continues to enchant the world 150 years later.

A new-born. by Zhou Mengqi

Born into a doctor’s family in western France in 1826, David developed a strong interest in nature at a young age. In 1862, he arrived in China as a missionary and also worked as a naturalist, collecting animal and plant samples unique to China for the Paris-based National Museum of Natural History.

On March 11, 1869, on his way back from a field survey, David found a piece of white-and-black fur in a farmer’s house. He was surprised. The farmer told him it was from an animal hidden deep in the forest. On April 1, David finally saw a living giant panda with his own eyes. The same evening, he immediately wrote a report on the creature and sent it to Miller Edwards, director of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. After studying the sample David sent back and his report, Edwards concluded that it was a rare new species. In order to differentiate it from the also bamboo-eating lesser panda discovered in 1821, scientists named the new species the “giant panda.” April 1, 1869 has since been considered the formal day of the scientific discovery of the giant panda.

Ancient Favorite

Scientific studies show that 500 million species have lived successively on Earth, with most going extinct and only 10 million surviving to this day. The giant panda has lived on the planet for eight million years, keeping most of its original appearance but adopting drastically different habits. Thanks to its antediluvian history, the giant panda is considered a living fossil and a “legacy” of primitive life.

A baby panda. by Chen Jian

Characterized by white-and-black colors, round face and plump body, the ancient animal has become a national treasure of China and a global favorite. Almost no other animal in the world has enjoyed the privileges giant pandas have: private planes, fighter escorts, magnificent pavilions, fresh bamboo flown in from around the world and grand birthday parties.

The Chinese government gave 24 pandas as national gifts to nine countries including the Soviet Union, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the United States, Japan, Spain, Britain, France, Mexico and West Germany between 1955 and 1980, making the giant panda a “friendly ambassador.” Starting in the 1980s, the population of giant pandas witnessed a sharp decrease due to environmental deterioration of its habitats. In the global context, appeals to protect endangered animals were rising. Responding to the calls, the Chinese government stopped giving giant pandas to other countries in favor of lending or renting giant pandas to foreign zoos to carry out joint research of the species.

Protection and Studies

Even the cutest animals in the world cannot escape threats of human activity and climate change. Over the past century, as their hidden places and food sources have decreased due to disappearing woods and bamboo forests, giant pandas have constantly lost their habitats, with less than a third of their living territory left from their historical range.

Kids look at giant panda Huanhuan at ZooParc de Beauval in Saint-Aignan, central France. Huanhuan and another giant panda, Yuanzai, arrived at the zoo on January 15, 2012, under a 10-year agreement on giant panda breeding cooperation between China and France.
Unlike those in captivity, wild giant pandas still keep ferocity and wildness like other bears. by Xiang Dingqian

In 1963, China set up its first giant panda reserve at Wolong in the southwestern province of Sichuan. Later, a dozen other nature reserves for the giant panda were established in the country. The fourth census of giant pandas showed that by the end of 2013, there were 538 captive giant pandas around the world and 1,864 wild pandas in China, with the latter group growing by 268 compared to the count of the third survey. Given the increasing number of giant pandas and more effective protection measures, the International Union for Conservation of Nature re-classified the species from “endangered” to “vulnerable” in 2016. Still, the giant panda is facing persistent challenges caused by shrinking and fragmented habitats. To ensure better protection, in January 2017, the Chinese government released a plan to build a giant panda national park. And the Sichuan bureau of the national park was formally set up last year.

“After millions of years of evolution, the giant panda has survived,” beams Pan Wenshi, former director of the Giant Panda and Wild Animal Protection Center at Peking University. “But it is not here on this planet to entertain humans at the zoo. The protection of the giant panda should not be limited to increasing its population but should extend to protecting the entire ecological system in which it is an iconic species. A healthy environment can provide a safe home for diverse species as well as soil and water resources. The giant panda is a bellwether of the environment. Protecting the giant panda is protecting the future for ourselves.”

A mother panda helps her baby learn to climb trees. by Zhou Mengqi

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