Review of ‘The Last Panda’

The Last Panda
George B. Schaller
University of Chicago Press

Pandas are the superstars of endangered species. Charming, gentle and vulnerable, these shambling, bamboo-crunching beasts from the mountains of western China are so popular a zoo attraction that a single animal can mean millions of visitor dollars, and the Chinese government rents out pandas short-term for six-figure fees. But as George Schaller makes clear in this sensitive and illuminating book, all the attention and popularity do nothing to help panda conservation at a time when perhaps 1,000 to 1,500 giant pandas remain. When breeding animals are caged they don't always do what comes naturally in the wild, and as a result the population declines still further.

Schaller is the right biologist-writer to pair with pandas. The author of the acclaimed The Year of the Gorilla and other fine nature books brings a combination of scientific expertise, cultural humility and writing skill to the task of documenting a several-years-long campaign during which he and others studied pandas in China in order to find ways to save them-with only indifferent success. In the end he retained a flicker of hope but not much more. China has established more nature reserves in recent years than any other country in the world, but the reserves are inadequately policed, poaching remains a major threat, and habitat destruction for lumber and farmland continues to squeeze the panda's range. When Schaller left the panda project in the mid-1980s he still was not sure whether China's government and scientific leaders were fully committed to saving the panda.

His book is a nicely crafted blend of wildlife observation and political-cultural analysis. The Chinese, traditionally resistant to advice from foreigners, at first almost seemed intent on sabotaging Schaller's World Wildlife Fund-sponsored project: they barred him from access to important data, insisted that he be escorted on tracking hikes and sloughed off much of the support work. Chinese researchers who developed an interest in the animals were sometimes arbitrarily shuttled elsewhere. "Both the Chinese and the pandas," he writes, "embody a blend of deceptive stoicism and warmth."

Schaller doggedly sloshed through the snow-blanketed highlands and endured freezing nights at observation posts, collected droppings with an ardor only a scientist can appreciate, trapped and radio-collared pandas, and occasionally watched them feeding, at play or engaged in the graver business of sex and parenting. On one trek he got a glimpse of the formidable animal behind the cuddly surface. He and an assistant got too close to a mother panda and her young:

"Suddenly we see bamboo sway thirty feet ahead, and Zhen [the panda] appears by a fallen tree. She turns to leave, abruptly changes her mind, and, giving two loud roars and several snorts, trots toward us. There are situations when it is unwise to test whether an animal is just bluffing-and this is such a case. I crash through the bamboo to a nearby tree, a small one six inches in diameter, and scramble up. Not until I am sitting on a low branch eight feet above ground do I look back. . . . Zhen hesitates a moment, first starting to follow Hu Jinchu, then veering toward my tree. After she passes beneath my feet she halts, huffing and snorting, and listens for one long minute, [then] turns toward the den tree one hundred and twenty feet downhill."

Pandas are more susceptible to extinction than many other animals because of their all-bamboo diet. Lacking the adaptability of bears, coyotes and other scavengers, they are tied inexorably to the steadily shrinking bamboo forest. Natural bamboo die-offs, which occur periodically, can decimate a local population. A newborn panda is surprisingly tiny, weighing only three or four ounces (an adult weighs about 200 pounds), and needs intense parenting for several months. With a relatively low metabolism, pandas spend most of their time foraging and resting, ranging less than a mile a day, putting away up to 40 pounds of bamboo shoots or stems daily.

Poachers who illegally hunt musk deer sometimes kill a panda in their snares, a preventable disaster that befell one of Schaller's collared animals. "We stood in a semicircle before her," he writes of another snared panda, "looking down at her still form as if in prayer. It was a silence far louder than the usual chatter. Finally, as if in slow motion, we took pliers to unwind the snare from her neck and turned her over. There was milk in her swollen nipples. She had died at the height of life's success; somewhere in the forest was an orphaned young about seven months old, still in need of milk, but with luck it might survive on bamboo leaves. We tied her to a pole, and two men carried her down the mountain, one of her arms bobbing in rhythm to the steps." It is clear from this passage, among others, that this is a scientist who knows how to use the language.

Schaller finds wisps of hope in the fact that the poacher in this case was eventually sentenced to two years in jail (doubtless a stiffer penalty than a similar conviction would have brought here). The abundance of reserves and a growing dedication among Chinese biologists also offer encouragement, but Schaller concludes that the panda will never be truly secure and may well be doomed. "It is the difficult fate of this generation to finally grasp the magnitude of all the offenses against the panda and other forms of life," he writes, offenses that have culminated in "nothing less than a spiritual divestment, a renunciation of past and future." The Last Panda is a sad chronicle of our failure, so far, to stem the decline of the animal that may be the most beloved on the planet.

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