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…

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