The Peculiar Lives of Pandas

From relative obscurity to modern obsession, the giant panda has a face most are fondly familiar with. But how much do we really know about them?

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The first zoo-like setting of the panda is thought to be the 3rd century BC Shanglin gardens in the ancient Chinese capital Xi’an. Photo Courtesy: Smithsonian’s National Zoo


In ancient Chinese lore, pandas were thought of as majestic demi-gods to be used in battle alongside other grand creatures like tigers and leopards. They were initially referred to as a type of Pixiu (a mythical, flying tapir creature), or Shi Tie Shou, meaning ‘animal that consumes iron,’ given metal-eating was believed to be one of their legendary abilities. The ancient Han Dynasty court scribe, Sima Qian, describes how Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor) tamed such chimeric beasts in his part-historical, part-fable The Records of the Grand Historian, written from 109 B.C. to 91 B.C. 

While giant pandas feature in Chinese history, they were not central figures until after the early 20th century. They are notably not part of the Chinese zodiac calendar, and other than their pelts, their body and by-products have not typically been consumed or used for medicinal purposes in China, unlike tiger bones or bear bile. It is reasonable to assume that the bamboo forests of ancient China cloaked their existence, only offering far-reaching royals and rusticated villagers contact with giant pandas for tens of centuries, until western influence, and later, China’s age of industrialisation.


The Pursuit of the Panda

Pére Armand David is the first westerner known to seek out the giant panda. He was a French missionary who came to China in 1862, but his passion for naturalism took him over 7,000 miles across the nation. During over a decade-long tenure in China, he discovered myriad flora and fauna for his benefactors at the Academy Sciences and the Natural History Museum of Paris. David never found a panda, but he purchased a pelt from hunters near the remote Dengchi Valley Cathedral. When his finds were shipped to France, it piqued western interest in this beast heretofore unknown to an entire hemisphere.

Giant pandas were eventually witnessed by westerners in the early 20th century. In 1916, Hugo Weigold, a German zoologist purchased a live, young panda (which soon died and never made it to the West) and in 1919 the American Museum of Natural History purchased its first panda skin. 1929 marked an unfortunate year for the panda in the U.S.A. The sons of American President Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Jr. and Kermit, shot a giant panda while it was napping, and a native hunter in their entourage also found his mark, during a ten-month excursion across China, and portions of Tibet and India.  This was reportedly done on behalf of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, who taxidermied these giant pandas that are still on display. The then reportage of the New York Times, read, “ROOSEVELTS BAG A PANDA. Cat-Footed Bear of the Himalayas First Shot By White Men.”


The Panda’s Past And Present

Baby panda Xiao Qi Ji was born in Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian Zoo on August 21, 2020. Photo Courtesy: Smithsonian’s National Zoo


Thankfully, big game hunting wouldn’t plague the panda like other exotically perceived species, but a life in captivity would. Chicago’s desire to see a live panda was not quenched, and in 1936 American fashion designer and socialite Ruth Harkness brought a captured panda cub into the states, reportedly fulfilling her dead husband’s dream. She had been detained in Shanghai for not having the correct permits for transporting wildlife, but by hook or crook, she managed to board her ship with an official customs receipt of 20 dollars for “one dog.” Unlike the French priest, she was able to keep the cub alive and healthy with baby bottles of powdered milk, cod-liver oil, and syrup. On Dec 24th of 1936, the world witnessed another panda-centric, front page New York Times title, “BABY PANDA HERE, ENJOYS ITS BOTTLE.” The world was transfixed. 

After living in Harkness’s New York Apartment for a short time, the giant panda was eventually sold to Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. Over 50,000 people came to see Su Lin on the first day, and over the next few months the crowds didn’t thin. Some in the city still remember her name (though the panda was posthumously discovered to be a male) Su Lin, which translates to “a little bit of something very cute.”


The Cuteness is No Coincidence

Our perception of panda cuteness is often explained through ethologist Konrad Lorenz’s seminal 1943 study that suggests “infantile physical features such as the large head, high and protruding forehead, large eyes, chubby cheeks, small nose and mouth, short and thick extremities and plump body shape… elicits caretaking behaviour from other individuals.” His theory, Kindchenschema—also known as the baby schema—posits that humans have an innate positive and protective response to their young because they are cute and cuddly. Pandas just happen to have all these characteristics for their entire lives. 

Their black eye patches, which are thought to be a biological mutation to make pandas look more threatening to predators, give off the appearance of enormous eyes, a trait that humans respond positively to; along with a large head, a portly body, and a clumsy nature—due to poor eyesight—that is much like a toddler’s, the coalescence of these characteristics enhance the perceived cuteness of pandas by people. While speaking with The Washington Post in 1990, Desmond Morris, a prominent zoologist, reiterated that a pandas’ physical appearance paired with their clumsy demeanour makes them “like super babies” to the human eye. He elaborated, “Mother Nature made them soft, too, with very striking markings… And pandas have a sixth claw, which enables them to pick up a stick and hold it as a human being would. Add the fact that they’re extremely rare and you have a can’t-miss combination.” 

If a person sees a panda and pines, “Oh it’s so cute, I want to squish its face!” that, essentially, is the emotion being triggered in the centre of the orbital frontal cortex, an area of emotional activity such as pain and pleasure. In modern parlance, pandas can elicit a powerful and protective ‘cuteness aggression’ in humans that interact with them. Today, with over a dozen panda cam-equipped zoos and sanctuaries spanning the globe from Moscow to Memphis, live panda streaming services put the aw in awareness for the millions that follow them globally. These networks, like the Smithsonian’s robust 48-camera system, are also crucial for behavioral insight of the panda.


Panda Diplomacy

After Su Lin’s splash at the Brookfield Zoo, more and more expeditions from America and Europe set out to capture wild pandas, and while they found the creature, they were not particularly skilled at keeping them alive for very long. The western world often had them travel on gruelling tours from zoo to zoo in a flurry of fanfare and greed undertaken by their caretakers. However, the advent of the Cold War in the early 1950s marked an embargo on importing pandas, or anything Chinese for that matter.

While the U.S.A. had no pandas for close to two decades, China had begun to readopt its ancient panda diplomacy. In 1957 the Moscow Zoo received its first giant panda, Ping Ping, as a gift, just like North Korea’s first pair of pandas San Xing and Dan Dan in 1965 and Japan’s Lan Lan and Kang Kang in 1971. The next pandas to reach the U.S.A. were in 1972, a gift to Richard Nixon from the Chinese government, which stirred up so much excitement the First Lady called the welcoming of Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo a “pandamonium.” Throughout the 1970s, the King of Spain and French president, along with Mexico’s Chapultepec Zoo and the Berlin Zoo, received gifts of pandas from the Chinese government. 

Tangentially, it is estimated that pandas lost over half their wild habitat, and many panda territories became fragmented, making mating difficult. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proclaimed giant pandas endangered in 1984, and the Chinese Government began to loan them instead of gifting them. In the 1990s, the San Diego zoo started the first successful breeding programs, in cooperation with the Chinese government, to regenerate captive populations. 


The Panda’s Past and Present

Much of Xiao Qi Ji’s childhood—from health checks (top) to climbing trees (bottom) —has been broadcasted over the Smithsonian Zoo’s robust camera system, which offers insight into the species’ behaviour. Photo Courtesy: Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Whoopie in the Wild

While early breeding programs faced problems—due to a general lack of knowledge about the panda, the mammals short (often two-day) annual breeding cycle, small breeding pools, and past difficulty in differentiating the sex of the pandas—over the last three decades an international network of breeding programs in zoos and sanctuaries have had some recent success. Nevertheless, observations conducted by zoologist George Schaller, the first human known to witness panda sex in the wild, offer a picture of a strong sex drive in wild pandas that seems much healthier than their captive cousins. In 1981, a female he’d been tracking, Zhen-Zhen, met with two male pandas, one slightly larger than the other, during the brief mating window, and was described as occasionally having simultaneous relations with both males. 

Zhen-Zhen also had a fair bit of monogamous sex with the larger panda, with Schaller noting that within a span of three hours they copulated a staggering 48 times. In the wild, it seems pandas make more of an effort to make up for lost time caused by their mating cycle. Zoologist and ecologist Pan Wenshi led a team of researchers from 1984 to 1995 studying giant pandas in the Qinling Mountains of Shaanxi. They were able to discover through the use of radio collars that females almost assuredly give birth every other year, and 60 per cent of cubs make it past the crucial marker of their first birthday. 

In captivity, artificial insemination is typically how pandas get pregnant, and it is rare for pandas to have group sex because they are limited by the number of other pandas in the zoo they are in. While it common for pandas to have twins, they typically only fend for the stronger cub, which leads to understandable human intervention in captivity. But without learning survival skills from their mother it can be difficult to survive long in the wild. Of the few reintegration programs, several pandas have been lost. Their deaths were natural causes (such as eating sick bamboo rats or territorial fights with other pandas), but their demise fell heavy on the hearts of those who wanted to see them reintegrate. However, Zhang Xiang, the first female panda released into the wild, in 2013, was recorded on camera in 2016, when she appeared in Yele National Reserve. This proves it was possible not only for a panda to be reintroduced and survive but showcases Zhang Xiang’s ability to find other panda territories outside the Liziping National Reserve where she was originally released. 

If vital bamboo corridors are restored, pandas, who are often referred to as ‘living fossils’ should have no problem procreating as they have done for millennia. When it comes to regenerating their wild population it goes in hand with re-establishing and reconnecting natural habitat. No matter how much we study panda behaviour, the species whose habits need to change are that of us humans. As Master Shifu, of the Kung Fu Panda franchise, says, “If you only do what you can do, you will never be more than who you are.”




  • Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.


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