Henry Nicholls, a specialist in evolutionary biology, is a freelance science journalist and author of Lonesome George about the last giant tortoise on Pinta Island in the Galapagos.
This latest work provides fascinating insights into the panda’s rise to its current popularity, charting the history of these elusive animals from their first official ‘discovery’ by a French missionary in 1869 to their status today.
The author gives us a timeline of China’s political history since the discovery of the first giant panda.
Along with outlining the natural history of the animal, he parallels its rise to world status with China’s rise from being an oppressed western colony to a world superpower, self-sufficient and, for sheer scale, surpassing any other economy.
He has the skill, rare among scientists, of explaining science in a clear and appealing manner. His writing is easygoing yet informative, and will be accessible to any reader with in an interest in nature.
The book is in three main sections, the first entitled ‘Extraction’, which charts the search for and discovery of the Giant Panda by the Europeans.
Until 1869 pandas were unheard of outside their habitat and then only seldom seen by the native people. There were some uncertain descriptions but, incredibly, not one drawing until the 19th century.
The author begins with a section describing the early days of panda discovery, from the first sightings by white men to the numerous trophy-hunters who followed, and on to the arrival of the first live specimens in western zoos.
He also explains how, surprisingly, some of these trophy-hunters were forerunners of conservation. Their dangerous and often foolhardy excursions into the unforgiving terrain and volatile political situation to obtain skins were often performed with a view to educating the people of Europe about this magnificent beast.
By showing these specimens in the natural history museums at home they would inform the world of their existence.
“It is only with great understanding of the natural world, with the hard evidence laid down in natural history collections, that a conservation ethic could emerge,” he writes.
The second section, entitled ‘Abstraction’, explains how the panda gained a new importance as a political and diplomatic tool for China. It became a national icon, something to be proud of and to protect. The Chinese government gifted many live specimens to various nations for diverse political reasons, even giving two to America after Richard Nixon’s wife saw them at a zoo during the first-ever US presidential visit to China.
Nicholls also discusses the changing attitude to wildlife taking place worldwide, and the formation of the World Wildlife Fund among other conservation groups.
Part three focuses on the protection of these animals and their future. The author remains optimistic for the panda saying “pandas now find themselves in a relatively good place”.
Dozens of national parks have been set up in the pandas’ bamboo-forest habitats, poaching has been banned, as has logging in sensitive areas. At the same time, the science of pandas has advanced, with numerous successful breeding programmes in place. He compares this with China’s current situation – rising standards of living, better education and a hugely powerful economy.
His epilogue is a sombre comment on humans and their devastation of wildlife, but Nicholls is hopeful we can use our intelligence and compassion to allow nature’s magnificent creations to share the planet with us.