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PHOTOS: Pandamic!
How the panda craze was ignited in a small county in China
By Ma Li | Web Exlusive

Text by Ma Li, photos by Wang Xiang

Pandas are natural stars. Since 2008, when Paramount Pictures' animation comedy Kungfu Panda became an international hit, the giant bears having been hobnobbing with the big screen. Now, after two sequels, there is Born in China, a Disney documentary directed by Chinese director Lu Chuan, featuring a doting panda mother and her cub, alongside two other animal families.

With the film's recent release in the United States on April 21, it is a good time to revisit Baoxing County in Ya'an, southwest China's Sichuan Province, where 19th-century French naturalist and Jesuit priest Jean Pierre Armand David became the first foreigner to discover the panda and introduce it to the world.

David came to China in 1869 to work in a church. He kept a diary of his life and work there, including the discovery of the pandas. Abbe David's Diary was published in 1949.

On March 11, 1869, when he found a black-and-white animal fur on the wall of a villager's home. David was thrilled. That night he wrote: "To find such an animal must be a major scientific discovery."

On May 4, 1869, he captured a panda and began to record its habits. He identified the animal as a new species of bear and planned to take it to France and introduce it to the world. But due to poor feeding conditions and a lack of understanding of the bear's habits, it died before it could be shipped to France.

David sent the stuffed body to Paris, where it caused a sensation. People were amazed at the charming round-faced creature with two back circles around its eyes like a pair of stylish sunglasses.

However, the discovery was a curse for pandas. Foreign explorers and zoologists flocked to China, trying to catch them. From 1936 to 1946, 16 pandas had been shipped out of China alive and more than 70 panda specimens sent to museums in the West.

Today, a national nature reserve has been established in Baoxing to protect pandas. The county has more than 300 pandas, accounting for approximately one third of all wild pandas in the country. In July 2006, panda habitats in Sichuan, with Baoxing at the core, were inscribed as a world natural heritage.

Pandas served as diplomatic envoys and token of friendship. From 1957 to 1982, China presented 23 pandas to nine countries. Seventeen of them were from Baoxing.

The two most famous panda "diplomatic" stars Lingling and Xingxing grew up in Baoxing. In 1972, when U.S. President Richard Nixon visited China, he was gifted the pair and when he took them back to Washington, D.C., they were greeted at the airport by more than 8,000 Americans. They lived in the United States for more than 20 years.

After them, more have been sent abroad under a leasing system for research purposes. Pandas, unique to China and yet adored by millions outside the country, are cultural bridges bringing people closer.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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