By Ma Tianxiao
Giant panda Ai Bao, leased by China to South Korea, gave birth to a pair of baby pandas on July 7. They are the first pair of giant panda cubs born overseas this year, as well as the first panda twins ever born in South Korea.
People all over the world love giant pandas. The animal traces back to the ancestral panda genus Ailurarctos 8 to 9 million years ago and was recorded by many ancient Chinese books. It has been considered a valuable animal since ancient times because of the legends about it and its scarcity.
Ai Bao arrived in South Korea in March 2016 on a 15-year lease and joint international research. As a matter of fact, sending giant pandas overseas is not an exclusive practice of modern China. Two pandas were sent to Japan’s Emperor Tenmu by Wu Zetian, China’s only empress in the early Tang Dynasty (618-907).
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, giant pandas have officially “assumed office” as “diplomatic envoys” and were sent to the Soviet Union and North Korea as national gifts.
When then U.S. President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, the Chinese government gave the United States two pandas, Xing Xing and Ling Ling, as gifts. About 20,000 people came out for the panda pair’s first day of public viewing in the United States.
Out of the consideration of panda protection and propagation, China stopped sending giant pandas as gifts to foreign countries since the 1980s and instead continued its panda diplomacy through research cooperation.
According to statistics, China has carried out panda conservation and research cooperation projects with 22 zoos in 17 countries. As of 2022, there were 64 giant pandas and their cubs living outside China.
Giant pandas have become an important signature of Chinese diplomacy and friendship. Every panda going or living abroad has its interesting stories. For instance, the Japan-born giant panda Xiang Xiang got its name from more than 300,000 suggestions from the public; the Berlin Zoo invited 12 tenors to sing “Happy Birthday To You” to celebrate giant panda Jiao Qing’s birthday; Ouwehands Zoo in the Netherlands has built a special “Pandasia” for giant pandas Wu Wen and Xing Ya that covers more than 9,000 square meters; Australia’s Adelaide Zoo grows 15 species of bamboos so as to provide fresh bamboos to giant pandas Wang Wang and Fu Ni.
Currently, giant panda images are more and more appearing in major events, from the 1990 Asian Games mascot Pan Pan the Panda, to Jingjing, one of the mascots of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Besides, the China International Import Expo, the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games and the Chengdu 2021 FISU Summer World University Games also used panda as their mascots. Panda has been on the logo of the World Wide Fund for Nature since the organization was established.
China places extremely high importance on wild life conservation. Giant pandas, which are rare and distributed in a narrow range, are under key protection in the country.
Since the 1970s, China has launched a series of major projects of panda protection aiming at conserving the animal’s habitats, establishing panda reserves and strengthening artificial propagation of pandas. Many universities, under the support and guidance of the Chinese government, started panda-related surveys, protection and research on captive breeding technologies.
Thanks to these efforts, giant pandas were downgraded from “critically endangered” to “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature(IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species in 2016.
In October 2021, the Giant Panda National Park was officially set up. Stretching through Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, the national park is of vital significance for protecting rare species, stabilizing giant pandas’ propagation, promoting biodiversity conservation and improving human-nature harmony.
Giant pandas have been representing harmony, friendship and inclusiveness since the ancient times. It is hoped that this cute animal can better co-exist with mankind on planet Earth.
(Ma Tianxiao is a lecturer with the College of Life and Environmental Sciences of Minzu University of China, and a member of the working group of the China’s Fourth National Giant Panda Census)