Friday, November 04, 2011

The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China's Political Animal by Henry Nicholls

In the twenty-first century, the giant panda serves as an international symbol for wildlife conservation. The attractive black and white bear of China is beloved by fans worldwide who flock to zoos where they buy panda T-shirts and plush toys. They also donate to panda conservation efforts. A world without pandas is hard to imagine, yet, according to Henry Nicholls in The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China's Political Animal, it was only in 1869 that the Western world learned of the shy bear's existence. Incredibly, before the 1860s, most Chinese people had not heard of the panda either. Nicholls says there are no clear reference to pandas in any historical Chinese texts and no images of pandas in thousands of years of Chinese art. So panda-monium is still relatively new phenomena.

In The Way of the Panda, Nicholls recounts about 140 years of human-panda relations. Politics figures heavily in the story. The panda was discovered in a period when China was overrun by European powers wanting to exploit the old nation's wealth. Fortune seekers trekked to the western frontier of the country for pandas, but the bears were very difficult to find. It was 1921 before a British adventurer was able to shoot one and 1936 before a live cub was brought to America. World War II and the Chinese Communist Revolution stopped the hunters just at point when they had gotten their bearings. After the war, the panda become a highly protected political symbol of the Chinese people, and live pandas became diplomatic poker chips in international relations.

I particularly enjoyed reading Nicholl's account of the advancing science of panda management in China and in zoos around the world. I remember parts of the story from the news and watching nature documentaries. Then the last chapters focus on the prospects for maintenance of wild panda populations and the difficulties of reintroducing captive born individuals to the wild.

The Way of the Panda is a quick read for nature loving people with a little familiarity with conservation concepts. Nicholl's throws in a few puns, too. A good selection for most library collections.

Nicholls, Henry. The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China's Political Animal. Pegasus Books, 2011. ISBN 9781605981888.

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