Chengdu, China, has pandamania. On a recent trip there, I was floored by the Chinese people’s love of pandas and the cute mammal’s ubiquity in souvenir stands and signage.
The city of 14 million is located in Sichuan province, where about 80 percent of China’s pandas reside. The government is serious about keeping its pandas safe. But it wasn’t always that way. Nineteenth century China was riddled with famine, corruption, poverty and fighting.
As my panda-loving tour guide Mavis Mei sadly said as we drove through Chengdu, “We could not even protect ourselves. How could we protect the pandas?” Panda hunters got a high price for skins.
Westerners only learned about giant pandas after French priest Armand David stumbled upon one in 1869 and managed to send a panda skin to Paris. A little later, in 1928, Teddy Roosevelt’s sons Kermit and Theodore, Junior came stalking pandas. They bagged two, which were taxidermied and displayed at the Field Museum in Chicago.
The strangest story Mei told my group of eight was about Ruth Harkness’ live panda acquisition in 1936. She was an American woman married to a zoologist. They came to get a panda for the Chicago Zoo (obviously Chicago is panda-obsessed) but her husband died on the trip. Ruth decided to persevere anyway, continuing on to Sichuan and convincing a local to find a panda cub for her. According to Mei, Ruth bribed customs two dollars to write “puppy” instead of “panda cub” on the official form. She named it Su Lin.
When their plane landed, the media mobbed Ruth and Su Lin, the first giant panda in America. Ruth kept her panda puppy for a month, then sold Su Lin to the Chicago Zoo for $9,000. Unfortunately, the panda only lived a year.
A panda’s life is not as easy as it looks. China banned panda hunting in 1949. But the animals were still subject to the life cycle of bamboo. In 1984, a massive bamboo die-out killed 184 pandas, Mei said.
The Chinese government and the international community of panda lovers intervened. People from all over the world sent money to ship bamboo to pandas. Mei recalled that a friend who was seven years old at the time broke her piggy bank and donated all her money for panda food.
After that disaster, the Chinese government opened the country’s panda bases. The Chengdu Panda Research Base is one of 32 in China, but the only one open to the public. The crowds and selfie sticks made me feel like I was in the midst of celebrities and I guess I was. The approximately 40 pandas that live at the Chengdu base are well-loved. Especially the newest crop of six month-old babies.
In addition to watching the pandas, visitors can tour the museum, nursery, research facilities, movie theater and, of course, a gift shop.
Thanks to conservation efforts, in September 2016 the World Wildlife Fund downgraded pandas’ status from endangered to vulnerable. China’s panda bases have been crucial to this improved status. The Chengdu base’s original six sick and starving giant pandas have generated 167 babies, including 23 born in 2016. An estimated 1,800 pandas live in the wild.
Marketers milk the cuteness factor. In Sichuan province, panda merchandise is everywhere: hats, sweatshirts, backpacks, chopstick holders and even plush panda nunchucks.
At the upscale shopping mall on Chengdu’s Chunxi Road, the Hipanda store sells jackets and t-shirts featuring angry warrior pandas, proving that even pissed off pandas are cute. The local philosophy seems to be that pandas make everything better. On the highway outside Chengdu, a cartoon panda jollies up a billboard for the Sichuan Anorectal Hospital.
But who can blame them? I know I was fantasizing about ways to smuggle my own panda puppy back home.