Just as I’ve come to resign myself to waiting close to three months for postcards to arrive from Mainland China, this one jetted itself from the capital of Beijing down to Phuket in less than two weeks! There truly is no rhyme or reason to the posts in Southeast Asia. It also happens to be my first “shaped” card, in one of my favorite themes — maps. Pandas also happen to be one of my favorite animals, right after koalas. This card is the result of a direct swap with my new friend Yang Du through a Facebook trading group.
The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca, literally “black and white cat-foot”) is called dà xióng māo ( 大熊猫) in Chinese, which translates literally to “big bear cat”. The panda is native to south central China and is easily recognized by the large, distinctive black patches around its eyes, over the ears, and across its round body. The name “giant panda” is sometimes used to distinguish it from the unrelated red panda. Though it belongs to the order Carnivora, the giant panda’s diet is over 99% bamboo. Giant pandas in the wild will occasionally eat other grasses, wild tubers, or even meat in the form of birds, rodents or carrion. In captivity, they may receive honey, eggs, fish, yams, shrub leaves, oranges, or bananas along with specially prepared food.
The giant panda lives in a few mountain ranges in central China, mainly in Sichuan province, but also in neighboring Shaanxi and Gansu. As a result of farming, deforestation, and other development, the giant panda has been driven out of the lowland areas where it once lived. This is is a conservation-reliant vulnerable species. As of December 2014, 49 giant pandas lived in captivity outside China, living in 18 zoos in 13 different countries. Wild population estimates vary; one estimate shows that there are about 1,590 individuals living in the wild, while a 2006 study via DNA analysis estimated that this figure could be as high as 2,000 to 3,000. Some reports also show that the number of giant pandas in the wild is on the rise. In 2016, the IUCN reclassified the species from “endangered” to “vulnerable”.
While the dragon has often served as China’s national symbol, internationally the giant panda appears at least as commonly. As such, it is becoming widely used within China in international contexts, for example as one of the five Fuwa mascots of the Beijing Olympics.
The West first learned of the giant panda on March 11, 1869, when the French missionary Armand David received a skin from a hunter. The first Westerner known to have seen a living giant panda is the German zoologist Hugo Weigold, who purchased a cub in 1916. Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., became the first Westerners to shoot a panda, on an expedition funded by the Field Museum of Natural History in the 1920’s. In 1936, Ruth Harkness became the first Westerner to bring back a live giant panda, a cub named Su Lin which went to live at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. In 1938, five giant pandas were sent to London. Activities such as these were halted because of wars; for the next half of the century, the West knew little of giant pandas.
Gifts of giant pandas to American and Japanese zoos formed an important part of the diplomacy of the People’s Republic of China in the 1970’s, as it marked some of the first cultural exchanges between the PRC and the West. This practice has been termed “panda diplomacy”.
By 1984, however, pandas were no longer given as gifts. Instead, the PRC began to offer pandas to other nations only on 10-year loans, under terms including a fee of up to US$1,000,000 per year and a provision that any cubs born during the loan are the property of the PRC. Since 1998, because of a World Wildlife Fund lawsuit, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service allows a US zoo to import a panda only if the zoo can ensure the PRC will channel more than half of its loan fee into conservation efforts for the giant panda and its habitat.
In May 2005, the PRC offered a breeding pair to Taiwan. The issue became embroiled in cross-Strait relations — both over the underlying symbolism, and over technical issues such as whether the transfer would be considered “domestic” or “international”, or whether any true conservation purpose would be served by the exchange. A contest in 2006 to name the pandas was held in the mainland, resulting in the politically charged names Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan (from tuanyuan, meaning “reunion”, i.e. “reunification”). PRC’s offer was initially rejected by Chen Shui-bian, then President of Taiwan. However, when Ma Ying-jeou assumed the presidency in 2008, the offer was accepted, and the pandas arrived in December of that year.