It is hard to over-exaggerate the importance that is placed on “panda diplomacy” in China. It’s taken very seriously indeed. And of course, it’s topical at the moment, with two arriving at Edinburgh Zoo just before we left, and the BBC deciding in its wisdom to annoint the female panda one of its Female Faces of the Year, which has triggered something of a Twitterstorm, #pandagate, about which I will leave others to argue.
Pandas are of course ridiculously cute. But if one wanted to disprove evolutionary theory, pandas would be a pretty good place to start. They survive on bamboo, which doesn’t provide any of the protein a big bear* needs, which is why they need to eat so much of it and sleep so much, and their digestive systems aren’t really designed to process something so fibrous. Also, bamboo plants flower en masse every 25 years or so then die out, meaning their sole source of food disappears almost overnight and unless they can travel long distances to find more, they’re doomed. They can’t seem to sit up very well either. They climb trees but their arms and legs are so short, they’re not great for trunk-hugging. And then of course there’s the only being up for a mating session for a few days every year. All in all, they’re pretty useless. *Before anyone tells me, I know, they’re not really bears, they’re just pandas. The Chinese word for panda is ‘bear-cat’ which I think is a pretty good description.
One of the stops on our trip was Chengdu, out west, which stakes claim to being the panda capital of China. We had the amazing opportunity to visit the Panda Research Centre, which has about forty pandas. The breeding season is in the spring, and gestation is a few months, so we saw some that were only a few months old, as well as some boisterous teenagers (in panda terms) who were wrestling with each other up in the trees and falling in and out of a hammock. We could only stay there a short while, but I got some great photos, which will have to follow in the next post because I can’t get them not to overlap with the text here.