At the opening of the Olympic Games last Friday, Lin Hao (9), a student from China’s quake-stricken southwest Sichuan led the Chinese delegation with basketball hero Yao Ming.
But the ‘refugees’ basking in Beijing’s attention this Olympic season are eight two-year-old giant pandas from the quake zone, who posed for one million visitors from June-July, in between eating for 10 hours a day at the zoo.
As China slowly brings the black-and-white bear back from the brink of extinction, there are more giant pandas left in China today than the wild tigers in India.
The highly endangered giant panda scattered in China’s bamboo forests is a national treasure that became a Hollywood box-office hit in July thanks to lazy Po, the animated Kung Fu Panda. Jingjing, a panda sporting a lotus headdress to symbolise forests, is one of China’s five Olympic mascots or Fuwas.
In 2004, there were 1,596 giant pandas in China, up from about 1,110 in 1988. Research by scientist Wei Fuwen who tracked the panda for 20 years, estimates their number could be over 2,000. According to India’s tiger census out in February, there are only 1,411 tigers left, compared to about 3,600 tigers in 2002.
“The panda is not at an evolutionary dead-end,’’ said Wei, Director, Zoological Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, at a lecture last week. “Their population and genetic diversity is more than previously thought.’’
The reasons for the tiger’s decline and strategies to save it differ from the panda’s struggle.
But it’s worth noting how China’s campaign made the panda a much-loved national icon, raising funds and domestic support for conservation.
At the zoo, an 800 sq m glasshouse was hastily readied to house the pandas flown in May from the battered Wolong that houses China’s largest panda centre, after landslides in an 8.0 magnitude earthquake on May 12 destroyed 14 of 32 panda shelters. “Without access to the forests, we still don’t know how many pandas died in the quake,’’ said Wei.
As Beijing’s houseguests munch carrots, apples, (ice-cream cones too) and almost 20kg bamboo shoots and leaves daily, their visitors jump to one lakh on weekends. By 2007-end, China also had 239 captive pandas despite their low reproductive rate and high mortality.
Recently, Kung Fu Panda made it to a meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee, to discuss why China’s not yet made a panda blockbuster. The lonely Bengal tiger needs a Bollywood producer.