Like his beloved cousin the teddy bear, the cuddly panda is also a mascot—an emissary of good will, an icon of the World Wildlife Fund and a symbol of China's national identity.
Science writer Nicholls (Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of the World’s Most Famous Tortoise, 2007) deconstructs the panda as a cultural icon and unravels the fascinating story of its real life—not as a bored, sometimes fractious presence in a zoo, but as a remarkably resourceful, elusive inhabitant of the forests of China. The giant panda first came to Western notice in the mid-1800s, and author relates exciting tales of those early encounters. For the next 100 years, naturalists argued about whether this huge animal with its distinctive markings was more closely related to the raccoon, whose markings were somewhat similar, or the bear. (Modern DNA testing has resolved the issue in favor of the bear.) The Chinese have used the panda as a brand for its state electronic factories, and the WWF puts it forward to rally support for endangered species. The gifts of young pandas of opposite sexes were a symbol of moves toward detente with the Soviets, even though the two pandas in question refused to cooperate and the efforts to breed them were abortive. More significant was China's 1978 agreement to partner with the WWF in a major research program to observe pandas in the wild, in order to protect its continued existence in its natural habitat and understand how to breed and manage them more humanely in captivity. Nicholls provides a deeper, more meaningful understanding of “real wild pandas” and why their continued existence matters, not for our amusement but so that we can come to understand their “undeniable mystery.” He also writes that “[t]he conservation of wild pandas has also become a test of ourselves as a species.”
A welcome addition to the panda bookshelf.