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Solitary Enigma

The Last Panda

by George B. Schaller
University of Chicago Press, 291 pp., $24.95

The furry round-faced panda, so beloved in the West and the icon of the World Wildlife Fund, is, in its vanishing native habitat, an animal with a price on its head. What is treasured by one culture is dispassionately viewed as a source of quick revenue by another.

The stark contrast in values typifies the clash of cultures and customs that lies behind many of today’s most acute conservation crises. The last few rhinoceroses are being slaughtered for their horns, which are then offered in powdered form as a panacea by Asian apothecaries. The fate of elephants hangs in the balance of a raging controversy over international trade of ivory. Under the strongest international pressure, Japan has banned the importation of tortoise shell from endangered Hawksbill turtles. Norway has resigned from the International Whaling Commission, insisting on its right to continue a traditional seafaring practice. Concurrently, the US Congress has approved a bill to ban the import of all exotic birds in order to stem the rampant trade in endangered parrots, macaws, and other feathered species. Resolving these cultural clashes engages wild species in a race for time, with the high stakes outcome—extinction or salvation—hanging in the balance.

Schaller’s book is splendid, offering the most profound and articulate analysis I have seen of the dilemmas of international conservation. Not before has any writer I know of so grippingly and insightfully chronicled the clash in cultural values that makes international conservation such a daunting challenge. Of Schaller’s many books, this one is the most forceful and the most symbolic, a metaphor for scores of parallel life-and-death dramas being played out across the far reaches of our overstrained planet.

The reader is swept along on the emotional roller-coaster Schaller experiences as he tries to conduct a serious scientific study of pandas in their lofty mountain retreat in western China. He rhapsodically describes his feelings of euphoria when by chance he encountered a panda placidly feeding under a snowy canopy of bamboo or when he contemplated the grandeur of the Sichuan mountains. But Schaller’s inspired moments are repeatedly dashed by anxiety, frustration, fury, or indignation, as he is obliged to deal with one contretemps after another, nearly all of them arising out of the cultural gulf that separates him from his Chinese co-workers and bureaucratic mentors. Poetic passages revealing his deep emotional response to the panda and its vanishing habitat are artfully interwoven with exposition, analysis, and comment.

The panda is both protagonist and victim, at once so indomitable in its formidable haunts, yet so vulnerable to encroaching alien forces. Schaller so skillfully develops the tragic apposition between the two that by the end, the reader feels drained and unsettled, realizing that the desperate plight of the panda is only a symptom and not a cause, and that the future holds great uncertainty, not only for the panda but for the welfare of all life on earth, including mankind.

George Schaller is surely the world’s most traveled and distinguished wildlife biologist. He has seen our planet’s wildlife as few others have. His career began in Zaire in 1959 with a study of mountain gorillas (The Year of the Gorilla), undertaken for his doctoral thesis at the University of Wisconsin. He subsequently passed through several phases and continents, each requiring him to surmount the challenges of a new country, a new culture, and a new animal. After the misty mountains of Zaire, he descended to the dry plains of Tanzania (The Serengeti Lion). Moving on to a new continent, he chose on his next venues the woodland savannah of northern India (The Deer and the Tiger), and the high Karakoram of Pakistan (Mountain Monarchs and Stones of Silence). Following the two Asian interludes and a relatively brief sojourn in the Brazilian Pantanal to study jaguars, he heeded a call by the World Wildlife Fund to undertake what would become his great challenge.

A five-year effort in China led to the present work and to an earlier, more technical companion volume, The Giant Pandas of Wolong (University of Chicago Press, 1985). Most recently he has shifted his attention to the Tibetan Plateau where his efforts have encouraged the establishment of a reserve the size of the United Kingdom in one of the world’s last and most forbidding wild places. Schaller is truly a hero of our time, a committed and eloquent spokesman for some of the earth’s most revered and endangered wildlife.

China in 1979 was just beginning to awaken from the Cultural Revolution with its “Open Door” policy and its Four Modernizations program—agriculture, industry, defense, and science. After a decade of isolationism and stagnation, the country’s leaders felt a pressing need to acquire Western science and technology and were willing to tolerate foreign contacts as a means to that end. A timely proposal from World Wildlife Fund International (WWF, now, the World Wide Fund for Nature) to join forces in a mutual effort to promote conservation of the Giant Panda was met with a cautiously positive response.

An exploratory visit by a World Wildlife Fund delegation to China in September 1979 resulted in a memorandum of understanding which agreed to a collaborative project on “conservation of the Giant Panda, including establishment of a research center on this species and systematic research on its biology.” By signing the agreement, WWF had unwittingly committed itself to a research center without a premonition of what the term might imply.

Several months later, when the two sides next convened for negotiations, a spokesman for the Chinese government elaborated plans for the research center in great detail.

The research laboratories will comprise eight hundred square meters and about twenty rooms. The cost of construction will be about two hundred and fifty yuan per square meter…. There will be about thirty scientists and technicians…. A ten-hectare outdoor enclosure will be built for twenty pandas. It will require five kilometers of fencing…. The research laboratories will be on one side of the river, the enclosure on the other. A bridge will cost three hundred thousand yuan…. A two hundred and fifty kilowatt hydroelectric station will be built.

And so on.

Schaller and the others were stunned. Their goals were to survey the remaining populations of pandas and to study the habits of the species in the wild. A grandiose laboratory seemed irrelevant. “Besides,” Schaller comments, “I felt the planning was backward: the Chinese had decided on amount of floor space and number of technicians without any discussion of the kind of research that would be done. I did not know then that in China the size of a building, no matter how inappropriate, makes a statement about a project’s importance.” And thus was WWF duped into laying one million dollars on the table as a precondition for Chinese acquiescence to the field study.

The episode is not an isolated one. More and more in the annals of research undertaken in the developing world “cooperation” takes the form of large lump sums or extravagant presents delivered to officials who must authorize the project. Such venality causes disillusionment among young researchers who imagine that their science will bring benefits to the host country as well as to themselves. But intangible benefits are not fully appreciated in many cultures, and in China, the outlook of officials was further tempered by fear and a long history of treachery in interactions with foreigners.

Despite the difficulties of concluding a working accord, Schaller was only a month behind schedule when he arrived in China to begin the project in December 1980. For the next year and a half he lived in Wuyipeng, a rudimentary collection of wooden huts set in logged-over forest at 8,250 feet in the Wolong Reserve of western Sichuan. The winter climate here only rarely offers relief from a monotony of dank, swirling clouds, snow flurries, and numbing cold. “Television shows and magazine articles have given the impression that field biologists lead an exciting life as they wallow with whales and associate with amiable apes. All but forgotten is the fact that many creatures are solitary and rarely seen, and that self-imposed isolation means lack of conveniences, bewildering cultures, and penance in dust, heat, snow, or rain.”

Few animals are more solitary and rarely seen than the Giant Panda. Schaller obtained his first glimpse of one nearly three months after the study began, and over the entire eighteen-month period of his stay at Wuyipeng viewed them on only thirty-six occasions. Obviously one learns little from such infrequent and usually fleeting encounters. Nearly all information therefore had to be derived through indirect means, employing many of the same arts of detection as those used by native trackers.

Winter is best, for the animals leave a record of their activities in the snow. Whether the animal was large or small was evident in the size of the tracks, and whether its pace was leisurely or hurried was easily told from the spacing. The locations of feeding bouts were marked by bitten off bamboo stems, which were counted to measure the size of the meal; resting spots were recognizable as compressed patches of snow; detours to leave scents that other pandas would recognize were plainly impressed into the record, as were the places where a film of ice was broken to open a drinking hole. And all along the way, a trail of feces provided a detailed record of what the animal ate, and how much, although the tedious task of deciphering the record is not one most people would enjoy.

Other techniques filled in the gaps. Animals were trapped and fitted with radio transmitters so that their movements could be followed over the mountainous terrain. The transmitters also served to document periods of activity and inactivity. Finally, captive pandas were fed measured quantities to determine the rates and efficiencies of digestion of different components of the diet.

Schaller assembles these bits of information into a satisfyingly thorough and accurate picture of a panda’s way of life, how it spends its time, where it goes, what it eats, how, and with whom. Since the determinedly solitary Giant Pandas do little else but eat, travel, and rest, a great deal more could not be learned by direct observation, however rewarding intimate, contact with the subject might be to the researcher.

Despite their prosaic daily lives, pandas impressed Schaller as mysterious and inscrutable, creatures of transcendent beauty and wonder whose inner lives—feelings, urges, passions—lie beyond the realm of human comprehension. Other species somehow seem more intuitively accessible, lions, for example, or gorillas, both social animals like ourselves who communicate in part through visual signals. Pandas, unlike lions or gorillas, live impassively in self-imposed solitude, depending on olfactory signals and occasional vocalizations to communicate with others of their species. They obtain no comfort, solace, or pleasure from social contacts, seeking only to avoid them except during the brief but tumultuous mating season. What then makes them tick? Schaller wonders out loud, but never finds the answer. The panda’s aura of mystery withstands the process of biological scrutiny and it is made more poignant by the impending extinction of the species.

On a biological scale, the existence of the Giant Panda is both predictable and improbable. It is predictable in the sense that wherever on earth bamboo grows in abundance, there are birds and mammals that have, through evolution, locked into dependency on bamboo as a principal or sole source of food. In South America, where I spend several months each year, a large rat and a score or more of birds live exclusively on bamboo. There is also a primate, the titi monkey, that frequents the impenetrable tangles of a spiny Amazonian species. On Madagascar, one finds a trio of bamboo lemurs, each of which directs its attentions to a different species of bamboo or to different parts of the plant. In the mountains of east-central Africa, Kandt’s blue monkeys fill the role of bamboo specialists, and in southeast Asia, where the diversification of bamboos is greatest, the Giant Panda, the Red or Lesser Panda (a raccoon-sized relative), and a bamboo rat all co-inhabit the same high mountain slopes, each subsisting in different ways on the bamboo plant. Wherever it occurs, bamboo thus seems to present a compelling pathway of evolutionary specialization, but such specialization is also an evolutionary trap. Once locked into rigid dietary dependency, the specialist’s evolutionary fate is sealed: it can survive only so long as the plants that provide its food.

Although perhaps predictable in a vague evolutionary context, the existence of the Giant Panda is improbable in that it is a member of the carnivore order which has evolved to become wholly vegetarian. Its nearest relatives, the bears, overgrown dogs really, are more omnivorous, subsisting on a mix of vegetable and animal food. None is so specialized as the panda (though I recently marveled at seeing a family of grizzly bears grazing like so many cows in an alpine meadow in Denali National Park). The panda differs from other bears in its relatively broad head and molars, in possessing a sagittal crest atop its skull to which powerful chewing muscles attach, in the roly-poly form that accommodates a vast intake of fibrous bamboo stalks, and, most singularly of all, in the panda’s “thumb,” the outgrowth of a wrist bone that serves as a sixth finger used to grasp and manipulate the hundreds of stalks it processes every day.

Remarkably, given these obvious adaptations to its circumscribed diet, the panda retains a typical carnivore gut, designed for quick digestion and passage. Most large vegetarian mammals possess guts that are modified for microbial fermentation, elaborated either at the front end, as with the multichambered stomachs of ruminants (cows, deer, goats, and their kin), or at the rear end, as in the rectal fermenting horses and their distant allies, the rhinoceroses and tapirs. The panda, with its short, simple gut, benefits from neither of these adaptations and pays a price for the lack of them. Without microbes to break down cellulose (the fibrous material of plants), it must subsist on the readily digestible but meager content of plant cells. To compensate for the resulting inefficiency of digestion, a panda must feed for as many as thirteen hours a day, consuming along the way some thirty pounds of bamboo. In contrast, a large adult male human being weighing about the same as a panda eats a fifth or a tenth as much food.

Schaller was not alone in arriving at these and many other deductions about the panda’s lifestyle. The panda project was throughout a collaborative effort. Schaller, his wife, Kay, and one or two other Americans, shared the camp at Wuyipeng with a dozen or more Chinese counterparts and staff. Relations in camp, although generally cordial and functional, were anything but intimate, since all communication with the Chinese had to pass through an interpreter. But even more constraining was a reflexive distrust of foreigners on the part of the Chinese.

On a personal level, I had never been where relations were so cordial yet inarticulate, where my freedom to do even the simplest task or veer even slightly from a rigidly prescribed course was so restricted, where all my actions were so unrelentingly scrutinized and reported, and where my presence was treated with such wariness.

So deep was the lack of trust, that Schaller was not allowed to be alone, a deep annoyance to one accustomed to working alone over a lifetime. Moreover, morale had to be maintained under the constant threat that the research would be halted if negotiations with WWF did not unfold in a manner satisfactory to the Chinese.

For his Chinese associates, Schaller says, such an eventuality would have represented “a deliverance, not a loss.”

Not one person in camp except myself was there because he wanted to work on pandas. The others had been ordered to do the task by the Party and the bureaucracy; for most the fact that they were in Wolong indicated that they lacked the political contacts to be elsewhere. Potential interest shrivels under such compulsion.

He only hints at his struggle to persevere in the face of such demoralizing pressures, attributing his mental equanimity to the support of his wife, Kay. To be fair, his leading counterpart, Hu Jinchu, a panda researcher for many years before the project began, introduced Schaller to many aspects of panda biology and persevered throughout the research, making many valuable contributions.

Schaller’s central part in the project ended in 1985, when he turned the continuing effort over to an international team of foreign and Chinese investigators. His reflections on bidding farewell to Wolong are somber and heavy-hearted. When he measures his success, not in proportion to what he had learned about one of the world’s most charismatic yet mysterious animals, but by how effectively he had contributed to its conservation, his assessment is bleak. Notwithstanding the financial and political contributions of the Chinese government, WWF, and other international organizations, his personal efforts had fallen far short of what was needed to reverse the forces that are inexorably diminishing the numbers of wild pandas.

The fate of the research center at Wolong itself suggests the contradictory attitudes that Schaller found so exasperating in his dealings with the Chinese. Built at great cost to the World Wildlife Fund and the Chinese government in the early 1980s, by 1989 it had not attracted competent researchers and remained largely unused, much of its state-of-the-art equipment neglected and inoperative. Its panda breeding facility registered a celebrated success in the birth of Lan Tian (Blue Sky) in 1986, only to see her die of intestinal ills in 1989.

But far more pertinent to the future of the panda as a living wild species than efforts at captive breeding is the imposing task of limiting population growth in Sichuan, China’s most teeming province. Imagine half of the population of the United States compressed into an area four-fifths the size of Texas, and you have Sichuan. That the world is now witnessing the final stages of the panda’s endgame is clear in the fact that only two centuries ago the species occupied a huge range in central and southern China. Pandas now persist in a tattered collection of mountaintop retreats comprising a total area smaller than that of Connecticut.

How many pandas remain? In September 1985, a joint China-WWF program was launched to survey the entire global population. Teams hiked across the mountains, covering more than 1,800 miles in the first year alone. At the conclusion of the three-year effort, the results suggested a world population of between 872 and 1,352 pandas, with the most likely estimates lying toward the upper end of that range. That is the best of the news.

The bad news cuts across several fronts. The panda habitat is severely fragmented. The census team obtained evidence of some twenty-four separate and isolated populations, most of them too small to offer prospects of long-term survival. Worse, logging and the conversion of forests to agriculture, both within and outside forest reserves, have reduced the total area of panda habitat by half since 1974.

Most tragic of all is the unsustainable and apparently unstoppable loss of pandas to hunters and trappers, resulting in an estimated annual decline of 5 to 7 percent. Dealers offer poachers $3,000 or more for a single pelt, an astronomical sum to a Chinese peasant earning perhaps $60 per year. With such high stakes, even the death penalty, already meted out to three poachers, does not deter the further taking of pelts. These are eventually sold as status symbols in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan for prices that have exceeded $10,000. A survey conducted in Japan in the mid-1980s documented 157 pelts and stuffed pandas; 146 pelts were confiscated in China. Together the two numbers exceed 25 percent of the extant wild population, and at that probably represent only a small proportion of the number killed.

Zoological parks; in their eagerness to display pandas to enthusiastic constituencies, are another threat, because pandas are removed from the wild to satisfy the demand. More than one hundred pandas now languish in captivity, ninety of them in China, where new pandas are captured in order to maintain a population that dies faster than it reproduces. In general, the success of efforts to breed pandas in captivity has been dismal. Thus the simple answer to zoos clamoring to “rent-a-panda” is that nothing should be done that will result in the further removal of animals from the wild.

Can pandas be saved? The unknown answer lies in the gap between intention and execution, between one level of bureaucracy and another. On the part of official China, one cannot doubt the sincerity of good intentions. “No country,” Schaller writes, “has in recent years established as many nature reserves as China…. From fortyfour reserves in 1956, the figure rose to one hundred and four in 1981, three hundred and eighty-three in 1986, and about six hundred in 1991.”

But enthusiasm and goodwill may count for little in the remote rural hamlets and administrative centers where national panda policy must be translated into action. Here “the enemy is a vast bureaucracy of local officials who myopically use obstruction, evasion, outdated concepts, activity without insight, and other tragic traits to avoid central-government guidelines and create ecological mismanagement on a dismaying scale. There is so far little protection of wildlife and forests, much less actual management of habitats for conservation. Segregated on its mountaintops, harried by poachers, its habitat shrinking, the panda has become an elegy.”

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