Mysteries of the Panda

The Giant Pandas of Wolong

by George B. Schaller, by Hu Jinchu, by Pan Wenshi, by Zhu Jing
University of Chicago Press, 298 pp., $25.00

Many animals, including Jesse James, Alexander the Great, and the giant panda, must, Janus-like, show two faces to the world—one required by legend, the other given by nature. The hortatory faces are, in sequence, honest (in the largest sense), virtuous, and cuddly; the natural visages tend to thievery, rapacity, and ennui.

George B. Schaller and his colleagues, in the finest study yet completed on the second panda, write in their introduction:

There are two giant pandas, the one that exists in our mind and the one that lives in its wilderness home. Soft, furry, and strangely patterned in black and white, with a large, round head and a clumsy, cuddly body, a panda seems like something to play with and hug. No other animal has so entranced the public…. The real panda, however, the panda as it lives in the wild, has remained essentially a mystery.

The Giant Pandas of Wolong, an attempt to decrease the mystery surrounding panda number two, provides extraordinary testimony to another phenomenon, more often part of legend than of fact—international cooperation in science. Only about one thousand pandas survive in nature, all in six small blocks of bamboo forest (29,500 square kilometers) along the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau—though historical records indicate a former distribution up to one thousand kilometers further east, nearly to the Pacific coast.

The Wolong Natural Reserve, largest of China’s panda sanctuaries, contains between 130 and 150 animals. Chinese scientists began an in-depth study of the Wolong pandas in 1978. George B. Schaller, from Wildlife Conservation International, arrived in December 1980 to work with a Chinese team headed by Hu Jinchu of Nanchong Normal College. This book summarizes the joint work that continues today.

Since this book is about the second panda, it will rarely delight and charm. The Giant Pandas of Wolong is a technical treatise, not a contribution to the distinctive genre of popular books that describe a naturalist’s intimate life with one interesting species in the wild (including several by Schaller, most notably his Year of the Gorilla). We can sense what’s coming when we read on page three (I shall provide a translation upon request) that “the zygomatic arches are spread widely, and the sagittal crest is prominent…. A typically carnivorous dentition (I33 C11 P44 M32=42, but P1 may be absent) has been strongly modified for crushing and grinding food.” And the relentless passive voice of conventional scientific prose imparts no charm or grace of composition, especially in such lines as “apparent itches are scratched with fore- or hindpaw.”

Pandas are rare and elusive animals even in the relative abundance of their Wolong reserve. We dare not recognize them as the cute stuffed toys of our children; indeed, we have to struggle mightily to see them at all. Between March 1978 and December 1980, Schaller and company saw pandas only sixteen times; the enlarged team recorded thirty-nine additional observations …

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