I have finally got round to emailing George Schaller, a major figure in 20th century field biology, who carried out pioneering work on most of the world’s striking megafauna, including gorillas, lions, clouded leopards and, yes, pandas to cherry-pick just a few. His position in the history of panda research is pivotal and his books on pandas – both scientific and popular – are very well written and exceedingly thorough. It is therefore very important that I should talk to him.
Dr Schaller responded immediately and positively and I am hoping to talk to him tomorrow about how he now sees pandas – almost 25 years after he finished up his work on this species. The Last Panda, a popular autobiographical look at his panda years published in 1993, was very gloomy about the future for China’s national treasure but a lot has changed since then and I wonder how he feels now.
He took a look at my blog entry on the panda genome research, from which scientists have found that the panda has all the meat-digesting enzymes one would expect for a carnivore and none of the enzymes that would be useful for digesting its bamboo-dominated diet. In his email back to me, Schaller points out that “pandas love meat and in the wild will happily scavenge.” Indeed, he and his colleagues used meat to entice pandas in traps so they could radiocollar them and there are lots and lots of stories of pandas getting their teeth into meaty remains. So those meat-eating enzymes encoded into their genome are still used. “But in their habitat and given their body build it’s tough to find meat” says Schaller. “A more interesting question,” he says, “is why they mostly stick to bamboo, rather than eat a great variety of plants like the black bear inhabiting the same areas.”
I now realise that I’d been putting off contacting Dr Schaller, reasoning that I had not read enough. But as I’ll never have read enough, I figured the time had come to make my approach. I find myself breathing more calmly now that I have. I remain slightly anxious over how it will go but mainly I am looking forward the interview.