Adorable, cuddly, bamboo-eating pandas are now an iconic symbol of China. But it hasn’t always been so. Until about 150 years ago, people outside of China thought that the giant panda was a mythical, fictional creature akin to dragons and unicorns. The discovery by outsiders of large populations of living, breathing giant pandas forced biologists to admit that there were still plenty of unknown animals to be discovered.
Because no Westerners had ever laid eyes on the Giant Panda, and because the Chinese didn’t write much about them, Europeans long believed that pandas were nothing more than a fanciful myth. They placed pandas in the same category as other imaginary or storybook animals, like fire-breathing dragons, unicorns, and sea monsters.
The rest of the world may have thought pandas were nothing more than a fictional beast, but the people of China had always interactions with them. The pandas were called by a variety of names, including ‘cat bear,’ ‘bamboo bear,’ ‘bamboo eater,’ and ‘monk bear.’ The pandas were hunted because the Chinese people believed that the animals’ pelt could ward off evil spirits and bring victory in battle.
Several stories surrounding pandas became part of the folklore of the Asian people. One story from Tibet even explains how the panda got its unique black and white coloring. The story goes that pandas were once all white, but that all changed when a leopard attacked a panda cub. A local shepherdess stepped in to save the baby panda. She succeeded but died of her injuries. The panda community mourned her hero’s death by wearing black armbands. They cried at the young girl’s funeral and wiped their tears on their armbands. The black dye ran, staining the pandas’ eyes when they wiped their tears, their ears when they tried to block out the sounds of crying, and their backs when they hugged each other for comfort.
In 1869, a missionary from France named Père Jean Pierre Armand David who was working to spread Christianity in China was shown an odd animal hide. It had clear black and white fur in a distinctive pattern. The animal, he was told, was killed by a hunter in the Ya’an Sichuan province. When he returned to France, he related his experience to a local zoologist who wrote the first official Western description of the animal that he dubbed Ailuropoda melaleuca, or “cat foot, black and white”.
Following Père David’s discovery, other westerners traveled to China to observe the giant pandas in their natural habitat. They wondered if the once-mythical panda could be found to be a real animal, could this be true of other supposed fictional creatures? This sparked an interest, not only in the giant pandas but in crypto-zoology as a field of study.
The Field Museum in Chicago sponsored President Roosevelt’s brothers, Theodore Jr. and Kermit, avid hunters and conservationists, to travel to China to bring back a panda for the museum to display. The brothers did them one better. They shot two pandas that were stuffed and mounted for the Field Museum. Unfortunately, every other museum then wanted their own panda display. Soon pandas were being hunted in large quantities.
People soon grew tired of looking at mounted pandas. They wanted to see the real thing. A California socialite smuggled a living panda cub out of China in 1936 and sold it to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. Named Su-Lin, the panda cub was an instant hit. On the opening day of the panda exhibit at the zoo, more than 53,000 people came out to see the unique animal. Like what happened with the museums, soon zoos around the world sought their own pandas.
Nearly two dozen zoos outside of China have giant pandas on displays. China used to give panda cubs as gifts to different countries, but that practice has ceased. Today, in light of declining native populations of giant pandas, the Chinese government only loan out breeding pairs of giant pandas for the high price tag of one million dollars per year. They also maintain the ownership rights to any panda cub that is born in a foreign zoo. Pandas still rank as one of the favorite wild animals and they are symbolic of China. The panda is even used in the logo for the World Wildlife Federation. When a new panda cub is born in captivity, they even make international news. For an animal that wasn’t known by the world until 150 years ago, it sure became popular quickly.