Wednesday, 8 December 2010

How do zoos choose?

The standardized pictures of 17 macaw species from PLoSOne 
Which of these macaws do you find the most attractive?

There's an interesting paper in PLoSOne entitled "Being Attractive Brings Advantages" in which a team of scientists from the Czech Republic and Germany provide some rather nice evidence that supports what we all suspect: that "the size of zoo populations is not only determined by conservation needs, but also by the perceived beauty of individual parrot species assessed by human observers."

If you're like the repsondents to their survey, then you'll have a preference for larger body size, longer tail and blue, orange or yellow colouration (preferred in that order). Green parrots don't do quite so well. "Visual inspection of the most prominent losers (e.g., Psittrichas fulgidus, Nestor notabilis, N. meridionalis, Cacatua tenuirostris, Enicognathus leptorhynchus) suggests that they usually possess an exaggerated, hawk-like beak (curved and sharp), which might be perceived by humans as weaponry," speculate the authors. Or they're just not that interesting to look at.

The authors have then looked for a correlation between the preference rank and the world captive population of each species. They found one.

Of course, this isn't really that surprising. Zoos came into existence as entertainment and still have to fulfill this function. But it's the balance between entertainment and conservation that's at stake here. What is a slightly more surprising finding is that neither the IUCN Red List category nor the taxonomic uniqueness of each species had any obvious relationship to the size of the captive population.

For the authors, this supports the hypothesis "the fate of the species may be considerably affected by its core attractiveness to humans." Pandas anyone?

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Panda Makers

Well panda fans, that was good wasn't it?

I'm talking of course about Panda Makers, the BBC2 Natural World documentary on pandas and the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. I thought it was going to be solely focused on the captive effort and whilst this was where all the photo opportunities were, the hour-long documentary covered just about every important panda base there is. You can watch it again on BBC iPlayer.

There are some very funny bits, like when the sexually frustrated male Pin-Pin performs some kind of pole dance and though Sir David Attenborough makes a cheap gag at the expense of the panda's "disproportionately short penis" and "startling deficiency" he quickly reigns in the frivolity: "It's a myth that pandas aren't interested in sex. They're just picky about their partners."

The documentary roams frequently out of the Base, up into the mountains to show some wild footage and there's a delightful sequence of archival footage, including some film of Ruth Harkness and Su-Lin, some of which I hadn't seen before. I thought the Mei-Lan side-story was a great touch, pulling the viewer away from the Base for a bit and following the Zoo Atlanta panda back to Chengdu. The branding of the aircraft reminded me very much of the way Chi-Chi received VIP (very important panda) treatment on her flight to Moscow in 1966. I did feel very sorry for Heather, the Zoo Atlanta keeper who raised Mei-Lan and then chaperoned her back to the Chengdu Base; that looked like a fraught physical and emotional journey and I'd like to interview her about it. The footage of Li-Li giving birth was amazing. Well done to film-maker Sorrel Downer, who spent two years shooting this documentary. You can listen again to a nice interview with her on BBC4's Womans' Hour last week.

I think I liked it so much because Sir David's take on pandas was very close to mine. He celebrated the strides in Chinese science, the international collaboration but did not shy away from the commercial flip-side and the difficulties of reintroduction. Nevertheless, this kind of emblematic effort is stilll worth pursuing, he argued. "If we can't protect the long-term survival of the giant panda...what chanced do we have of protecting those species that do not entertain us."

I couldn't have put it better.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Post-publication depression

I have post-publication depression. I put so much effort into growing my book The Way of the Panda, nurturing it into existence and now it’s out, I feel a little lost.

I want to write another book because it is so much fun. The research, the thinking and the writing gives the kind of creative reward that news and features do not. Waiting for reviews to appear – particularly the first few – is quite nauseating, but if they are good (as, thankfully, they have been for TWOTP) then the relief is a great boost. The marketing – the spin-off articles, interviews and talks or lectures – is strangely enjoyable too.
It just feels a little like the whole panda ride is already coming to an end.

In order to try to banish my panda blues, I have decided to move on and incubate my next book. The proposal is with my agent right now. I am also working on two other ideas. More soon...

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Panda mug

Originally uploaded by wayofthepanda
This is a mug I was given by Wang Dajun at the Center for Nature and Society at Peking University.

I still treasure it even though I no longer use it. A plasticy film on the lip, you see, has started to peel away. If you look closely too, you'll notice that the black dye has started to run. I guess it wasn't dishwasher-proof.

Turning the mug around there are similar stylized depictions of other species studied by this research group: the white-headed langur, Prezwalski's gazelle, the snow leopard and kiang.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Wigtown Book Festival

It’s time I put together my talk for the Wigtown Book Festival next week. I was excited to read that the festival programmer Adrian Turpin selected my book/talk for the first of two “Festival Director’s Cuts”. He says:
Everyone loves pandas. But until 150 years ago they were unknown outside China. Now they've become diplomatic pawns. Henry Nicholls' black-and-white tale should be read all over.
I will be talking about The Way of the Panda (and hopefully signing a copy or two) at the County Halls in Wigtown at 3pm on 30 September. I think you can buy a ticket here.

As one friend put it, County Halls this year, Carnegie Hall next.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

FT Weekend Magazine

I have an feature in today's Financial Times Weekend Magazine. It starts and finishes in Baoxing (left), a few hours' drive north of Ya'an City, and uses the town and surrounding panda habitat to explore two sides of modern China:
one determined to extract prosperity from the natural world and another intent on conservation even at the expense of development.
The feature opens with a double-page photo of a young panda hanging the fork of a tree.

What I've written builds on a blog post I put up after I got back from China in March.

Friday, 17 September 2010

First review

My first review of The Way of the Panda appeared today in The Daily Mail. It's a very thorough run-down of what's in the book.

Here's a nice pull-quote:
"Henry Nicholls expertly charts the panda’s decades of fame and binds together many intriguing facets of 150 years of Sino-Western interaction" Peter Forbes, The Daily Mail.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Galapagos Day

I was at Galapagos Day last night, an annual event held by the Galapagos Conservation Trust at the Royal Geographical Society in London. Last year’s speakers were so terrific – with Sir David Attenborough, Andrew Marr and Felipe Cruz – that I did think it was an impossible act to follow.

And so it proved. The problem was Stanley Johnson (far left), a writer and the father of the somewhat more famous Boris. He spent 15 minutes showing off photographs from his latest trip to Galapagos. Now, it is not difficult to take a passable, even a very good photograph in this wonderful place but Johnson had failed spectacularly. His commentary was little better. “This is a penguin,” he said of one slide. “This is another penguin,” he said of the next. “Here is a sea lion. And another.” And so on.

Ironically, his photographs were so bad and his commentary so thin that the whole thing became quite an entertaining farce. Unfortunately, this didn’t sit well with the gravitas of the evening’s theme “Galapagos, where next?” And I do wonder what Johnson’s illustrious co-speakers – the Ecuadorian ambassador to London Anita Alban Mora, the executive director of the Charles Darwin Foundation Dr Gabriel Lopez and botanist Sarah Darwin – made of his irreverent style.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Today Programme?

I got a call on Wednesday to tell me that Radio 4's Today Programme wants me on to discuss the point of pandas with BBC natural history presenter Chris Packham. You'll remember that he said - in my opinion - some strange things about pandas back in 2009. I blogged about this at the time and have talked to a lot of people who were really annoyed by what he said. I'll admit that the responsiblity of being the one to represent their views - especially on Today - is somewhat daunting. But someone needs to do it!

Originally, Today was talking about this happening this morning but they hadn't got in touch last night. It may yet happen, on Monday, apparently. I'm game. But is Packham?

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

It's printed

I returned from a two-week break in time to receive delivery of The Way of the Panda. It looks great.

It even comes with a very generous quotation from zoologist and author Desmond Morris, who describes it as "A fascinating story of an extraordinary animal".

Profile Books have sent out masses of copies. For example, I am gladdened to see that novelist Clare Dudman has received a copy and has mentioned it on her blog. And I'm getting the first inklings of feedback. Several broadsheets and magazines have now commissioned articles from me based on aspects of the book. Of course, much of this is just down to the allure of pandas but there are also very heartening comments filtering back about the book. The run-up to publication and review is a nail-biting time for me, probably for most authors. You've tried so hard to produce something really good, you are pleased with it but are niggled by the concern that others won't see it as you do. That said, it's an exciting time too.

22 days and counting. I have a lot on just now, features for New Scientist (on epigenetics) and Nature Biotechnology (on marine biodiscovery) to wrap up and these panda commissions to write, but if I can get my act together, I hope to post every day from now until publication - -30 September.

Inidentally, if you are thinking of buying a copy, now would be a good time because the prepublication price on Amazon is usually lower than post-publication and has just dropped to a very affordable £9.11, that's more than £6 off the cover price.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Wei Fuwen's desk

It's strangely tidy.

In an earlier post about fragmenting habitat - Pandas don't like roads - I mentioned my interview with Professor Wei Fuwen at the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences back in March. I promised to dig out the photo I took of Professor Wei and here it is.

I wonder whether he had just had a spring clean. My desk looks this neat about once every two months and it takes me a whole morning to tidy it up. This is the state it's in just now.

Frankly, I don't know how I get anything done.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Reintroduction adventure

Scientists have released four pregnant captive pandas into a large but fenced-in area of bamboo forest in the hope that their cubs - once born - will take to life in the wild.

It sounds like a convoluted reintroduction protocol doesn't it? After all, why not just release some pandas into the wild? Well the only time that was been tried - in 2006 - it was not a resounding success. The male panda Xiang-Xiang turned up dead within a year with injuries suggesting he'd got into a scrap with other pandas. When I was in China in March, I was lucky enough to get an interview with Zhou Xiaoping, Assistant Chief Engineer at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda at Wolong. He was heavily involved in the 2006 reintroduction effort and was very open with me about the project's shortcomings. "We thought that three years of training was enough for him," he told me. But it wasn't. With hindsight, most people agree that reintroducing a female would have had a greater chance of success: she would be more readily accepted into an existing panda community than a new male that turns up out of nowhere.

Dr Zhou talked through several possible next-steps for the Wolong staff in their effort to reintroduce pandas from captivity into the wild. One of them involved allowing a mother to give birth in a large, naturalistic enclosure where her offspring has only rare encounters with humans and then, when the infant is old enough set it free. I heard that Vanessa Hull of Michigan State University was involved and contacted her when I got back from China to see if I could find anything out. But she was admirably cagey. "I am not able to talk publicly about my work right now, as we are in a transition period that is a bit sensitive," she emailed me.

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald, which is based on a release from China's Xinhua News Agency, reveals that the reintroduction is already underway. I knew the CCRCGP would try something like this but I am surprised at how soon. Unfortunately, my book The Way of the Panda is now at a stage where I cannot add anything substantial. So it will go to press without this interesting latest experiment. That's annoying but inevitable when there's so much good work going on.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Pandas don't like roads

Chinese geneticists make a sound case for panda corridors in some of the most fragmented panda habitat there is.

A paper published online today in the open-access journal BMC Genetics is another important milestone in the advance of panda science.

This is Figure 1 from the BMC Genetics paper, showing the Daxiangling (DXL) and
Xiaoxiangling (XXL) mountains and how the river and road carve them up into four effective fragments.

The belief that fragmented habitat is going to restrict gene flow might be intuitive but such intuition is not enough on which to base serious and expensive management decisions. In this study, a team of Chinese scientists, led by Professor Wei Fuwen of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has a good go at providing the kind of evidence base that will be needed to construct meaningful habitat corridors between isolated pockets of bamboo forest.

When I was in China in March, interviewing scientists for my forthcoming book The Way of the Panda, Wei Fuwen gave me an hour of his time (I'll dig out the photo some time). As we began to talk, he was understandably wary of me, answering my sometimes difficult questions in generalities and frequently stopping the interview to pick up calls to his mobile phone with its implausibly snazzy ringtone or to light another cigarette. But after about 40 minutes, I think he decided I was someone he could trust and he opened up completely. By the end, he’d pulled me round his side of his strangely empty desk to show me a powerpoint presentation he’d just given at some closed meeting or other. He talked to me about the findings of the BMC Genetics study published today (you can get to the preprint PDF here).

He and his colleagues have sensibly homed in on the Daxiangling and Xiaoxiangling Mountains. These are the two most southerly regions in the panda’s range and are home to the smallest and perhaps most fragmented populations. This makes studying them pretty urgent, but the small population size also means that they had a chance of collecting data on most of the animals in the region. They probably got close.

They collected 192 panda scats (poos), got a genotype from 136 of them and resolved these into 53 different animals. This messy business is pretty much the only way to get good data on the population and distribution of pandas in the wild – I have heard of apocryphal stories of a PhD student going to study pandas in China and not seeing a single one for two years. In case you’re interested, this censusing approach was pioneered in the Wanglang Nature Reserve by Professor Wei and others in a paper in Current Biology in 2006. It is also, according to a Scientific American blog post, likely to be used in the Fourth Giant Panda Survey (which will begin next year).

Many of their findings make intuitive sense: pandas stick to bamboo forest; the Dadu River, which runs between the two mountain ranges, appears to have had a big role in keeping pandas from these two regions apart; and the National Route 108, which cuts its way from North to South through both of these ranges has further fragmented things. Still, though you could have predicted this might be the case, we now know it to be true and importantly we also now know just how small is the population size in each fragment, the genetic variation in each isolated population and where action is most urgently needed.

In conclusion, Wei and friends argue that “it is vital to connect currently fragmented habitats and increase the connectivity of bamboo resources within a habitat to restore population viability of the giant panda in these regions.” They also sign off with the idea that “for these small isolated populations reintroductions will be an effective strategy.”

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Pandas for kiwis?

New Zealand wants to swap kiwis for pandas.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key appears to be up for trying to bring down the price of renting a pair of pandas from the People’s Republic of China by offering up a couple of kiwis in return. In an article in the New Zealand Herald this week, Key is reported to have said: “We're a special friend of China. Why couldn't we give them some kiwis? Two for two. Kiwis are worth a lot.”

Indeed they are. But though all of the Kiwi’s kiwis are endangered, why stop there? New Zealand might get more leverage bartering with an even rarer species. This point is made rather nicely by columnist Brian Rudman in a follow-up article in the Herald. The kakapo is far more endangered, he says, with just over 100 individuals left. There’s also the takahe, a giant flightless bird once assumed extinct but rediscovered in the 1940s with an estimated population size of just 250.

But here’s the serious side to this story. I think I have reconciled myself to the way panda loans are currently handled. Just to recap, for those of you that don’t know, a recipient institution will negotiate with the People’s Republic to receive a pair of pandas (male and female) for a long-term, usually 10-year period. They have to pay for the privilege. In the US, the price currently stands at US$500,000 per panda pair per year, money which is ploughed back into the conservation of wild pandas in China – either directly or though building the infrastructure in the country. In addition, and very importantly, the recipient institution must commit to carrying out research on their pandas, something that has radically transformed our understanding of this species. Few zoos that receive pandas on loan recoup their outlay through increased gate receipts. But they know this before they sign; they are prepared to go ahead for the less tangible educational, research and public relations opportunities that having pandas opens up.

I am not, however, comfortable about putting an explicit price on rarity implied by the rhetoric over kiwis and pandas. II haven’t quite worked out why, but I feel that it is one important step further and not very different from the money-making motivation behind the illegal trade in endangered species that sees some very strange people paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to (illegally) obtain a panda skin to drape on their wall. Am I right? I would welcome your thoughts.

It is perhaps rather telling that John Key, before he became Prime Minister, was a banker. I do hope the Chinese will be above this grubby bartering.

Friday, 25 June 2010

What did not make the cut

I have spent the last two weeks combing through the proofs to my book. I delivered the near-final work to Profile Books yesterday.

I have mixed feelings. I have really enjoyed this book and am pretty pleased with it. So it’s sad be drawing a line under it. It is also frustrating to know that there are lots of things that I had to leave out. Just as an example, I had a very interesting interview with Xie Yan, the director of Wildlife Conservation Society at the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Dr Xie’s work is not on pandas but on China’s biodiversity and I wanted to use the interview to pull away from the panda to this more general subject. As it turned out, her voice got squeezed out and did not make the final cut. I had so much to say and was mindful of bringing in too many different characters and asides to the story.

After my interview with Xie Yan in her office back in March, she very kindly came with me across Beijing for an interview she had helped set up with Wang Menghu (above; a retired Ministry of Forestry official who was instrumental in WWF’s negotiations to work on pandas in 1979). Mr Wang had insisted that she come along, so she had to. There are accessible accounts of the 1979/1980 negotiations, notably in zoologist George Schaller’s The Last Panda, but I wanted to find out what the Chinese felt about these westerners marching in to secure a project on this “national treasure”. It was a completely bizarre interview because Mr Wang was not happy for Dr
Xie to translate his answers to me, but he was happy for me to record his answers and have them translated at a later stage. I thought this was really odd, but later realised it was pretty shrewd. It meant that Mr Wang retained complete control of the conversation, with me powerless to interrupt and direct proceedings. When I got the interview translated back home, it turned out he had not really understood what I wanted from him. Here’s a slightly mocking exerpt:
Me: Tell me what happened behind closed doors that day in 1979.
Wang Menghu: That’s only a story not the science.
Me: That’s what I want; that’s why I’m here.
Wang Menghu: He doesn’t know what science is.
Me: I want to know the history.
Wang Menghu: This is just a joke. It’s not the science.
Even now, I am still a little affronted by the suggestion that I do not know what science is and find it very hard to let it pass without pointing out that I have a PhD in science and that Mr Wang is a retired bureaucrat with no formal scientific training. But that just sounds petty. Mr Wang wanted to talk science because it is not complicated by politics but talking history was a different matter. He said he’d got in trouble a few years back when he’d spoken candidly about historical events. I was not there to set him up. I genuinely wanted to know and tell how the Chinese saw things. But Mr Wang could not know that and could not take the risk. So his is another voice that isn’t in the book.

I also wrote a whole section on efforts to clone pandas but this didn’t make it either. It feels a bit remiss not to mention this in the book, as this kind of nonsense is exactly the sort of thing that pandas have had to put up with over the last 140 years. But then again, cloning pandas is such a silly aside that it just didn’t sit with the rest of what I’d written. Maybe I can write a feature about it in due course.

On which note, I had lunch with my publicist yesterday (darling). We ate across the road from the Profile office in Exmouth Market at an Australian bistro (!) Caravan and talked about me writing features in which I might be able to include some of this very good stuff from the cutting-room floor. She was very enthusiastic about the book and it’s really nice to have someone dedicated to thinking about how best to promote it. I am looking this bit of the book journey very much. I already have my first panda gig. I’ve been invited to talk at the Wigtown Book Festival on publication day - 30 September.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Old panda photos

Does anyone have any photographs of Richard Nixon’s pandas Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, residents at the National Zoo (Washington D.C.) from 1972 to the 1990s?

I have a chapter on them in my book (which I have now finished bar finalising the illustrations, sorting out references and putting together an index) and I would really like a photograph of these very famous pandas, especially one taken by a member of the public.

Whilst I am asking, I would also be interested to hear from anyone with photographs of Chi-Chi, London Zoo inmate from 1958 to 1972.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Devra Kleiman dies

I am quite a bit gutted. Devra Kleiman, one of the founding mothers of modern conservation biology, passed away last Thursday.

I have known about Kleiman’s work ever since my time as an undergraduate and when I began writing about pandas I was thrilled that I’d have an excuse to talk to her. Kleiman, you see, was a pretty important figure in the giant panda’s story, carrying out some groundbreaking research on Richard Nixon’s pandas Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, residents at the National Zoological Park in Washington D.C. from 1972 to the 1990s.

Kleiman was, in fact, one of the first people I approached for an interview in March 2009. I had heard that she had cancer but she willingly gave me her time. It was an extremely enjoyable conversation. At one point, I asked her if she remembered a memo she’d written to then zoo director Theodore Reed in 1976. She was stunned. “How did you know about that?” she asked. I told her that I’d read it. Kleiman, only a few years earlier, had been through all the records that she’d kept over the years and deposited the most interesting stuff with the Smithsonian Institution Archives. And it was one of the many fascinating documents I found there when I spent a couple of days going through some panda folders there in (I think it was 2007).

Since the Nixon pandas' arrival in 1972, the pressure had been mounting on staff to get the pandas to reproduce. Nobody had yet realised just how difficult this would be. Reed had rather rashly promised the nation that a baby panda would be born in 1976 to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the United States Declaration of Independence.

As it turned out, the pandas were not brought together until Ling Ling’s heat was almost over. Reed was furious. Kleiman, who was then in charge of efforts to get them to breed, offered an explanation. Ling Ling’s estrus had come several weeks earlier than the previous year. “This caught me (and I think, others) off guard,” she wrote to her boss in a conciliatory memo, the one I found in the archives. With plenty of staff carrying out round-the-clock observations according to the now well-practiced protocol, Kleiman had been confident – too confident – that any changes in Ling Ling’s behaviour would be detected. They weren’t. “I was insufficiently flexible in my attitude and much too conservative,” she told Reed. “Needless to say, I apologize.”

It is a very unusual document and Kleiman remembered writing it as if it had been yesterday. She had been brave enough to take total responsibility for the 1976 episode (even though Reed should probably have shouldered most of it for making such a rash promise). Braver still, she had selected out her apologetic memo for the likes of me to pore over at the Smithsonian Archives. She laughed long and hard that I’d found it and found it interesting. She might have thrown it away. I am glad she didn’t.

Kleiman was so friendly and forthcoming that I asked if she would read through a few of my chapters to be sure they tallied with her recollection of several important events. I sent her several chapters earlier this year and she got back to me on 12 April with some very helpful comments and suggestions. She never mentioned her illness. I never asked. According to a Washington Post obituary, she died a couple of weeks later at the George Washington University Hospital.

Amongst many professional achievements, Kleiman pioneered the field of reintroduction biology with her work on golden lion tamarins. One of my last questions to her was about reintroduction and its possible role in panda conservation. Even after a career dedicated to connecting up zoos with the conservation effort (which included penning several reports on reintroduction and pandas) she signed off her last email to me with the following sentence.

I need to think a bit more about reintroduction.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

The last paragraph

Yesterday I wrote the last paragraph to my book. That’s not to say that I have the thing finished yet – I still have chapter 4 to write – but I have wrapped up the ending, something that I’ve been mulling over for the last six months. The conclusion to a work of non-ficiton is rather a tricky thing to write. It is the bit of the book, where a departure from the careful curation of facts is required. You have to crank up your rhetorical game, set off a few fireworks and go out with some kind of take-home message. This might make it the least factual part of a non-fiction work. Even if the author has steered clear of the first-person, as I have done in The Way of the Panda, the ending seems to call for a hefty dose of subjectivity. It’s your last chance to justify why you’ve gone to the trouble of writing a book and to convince your reader that their money has been well spent.

I had lots of ideas for different endings and for a long while none of them was quite right. Some of them, I felt, were not sufficiently original. Others, I sensed, weren’t too bad, except that my heart was not quite in them. One, which I did rather like, would not have come well from someone with my ecological footprint. In the end, it all came quite naturally. When you come to read the book (because you will won’t you?), I don’t know if you’ll like it as much as I do but it’s a weight off my mind to have something down I am pleased with.

Monday, 26 April 2010

On Amazon!

My book is on Amazon. This is all very exciting, except that I haven’t yet finished it. On paper, I still have a lot to wrap up – one whole chapter, two half chapters and several bits of tinkering – and I am supposed to have the first complete draft with my publisher Profile Books this time next week. This, quite evidently, isn’t going to happen but I’m not actually that far off. I spoke to my contact at Profile on Friday and she has given me an extra week, which should just about do it. I had a great day on Friday, getting down 3000 good words, added a further 600 on Saturday morning and put together a very important 1000 words today. It is very exciting to see it all coming together.

This is the product description on Amazon:

In a most original book, science writer Henry Nicholls uses the rich and curious story of the panda from its ‘discovery’ 150 years ago in the highlands of China to its present international status as endearing icon of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF - fifty years old in 2011) and shy darling of the world’s zoos to do several things – to chart the emergence of modern China onto the global stage; to examine our changing attitude to the natural world; and to offer a compelling history of the conservation movement.

The product details say that it’s still going to be published on 30 September. You can preorder now, though as yet there doesn’t appear to be a discount for doing so. You can even preorder the paperback, down to be released on 13 October 2011.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Time travel

Driving up to the Dengchigou Catholic Mission was a little like driving back in time. As my driver Yong Deng – a very cheerful trilingual Tibetan gentleman with an impossibly soft and husky voice – turned the steering wheel of his 4-by-4 up the Dengchigou Valley, the clock stopped and the hands began to go in reverse. Over the next ten minutes, we travelled back 140 years.

Looking back down the Dengchi Valley to the West.

At the bottom of the valley, where the Dengchi runs into the racing Donghe River, a large dam revealed we were still in the 21st century. The road, though not smoothed with tarmac was nevertheless straight and relatively free of potholes. We sped quickly through a cluster of half a dozen houses with all the hallmarks of late 1990s construction. One of the buildings might have passed for a shop but it was shut. There was no sign of life, save a chicken that sped across the road just ahead of our thundering wheels.

As the pothole quotient began to increase, we slowed to a stop to wait for two men to move a 1970s-style truck. It was loaded with rubble, possibly from a nearby quarry, perhaps to fill in the potholes. As we went higher, the road got worse. A very small, old man walked wearing a cloth cap trudged stoically along the road, a large basket strapped to his back. A straggler from the Long March? The steep south-facing slopes on the northern side of the valley were cascades of scree.

The road, now a track, doglegged back, taking us higher up the north-facing southern slope. We passed another village, in which the entire community had come together to build someone’s house, perhaps that of a newlywed couple. They pointed and laughed. Embracing my role as preposterous tourist paying homage to pandas, I wielded my only weapon, my camera, and the crowd of happy faces quickly fled indoors (above).

Further up, further back in time, a man with a cow-pulled plough came to a standstill to stare. We passed a stand of lush bamboo. I looked back down the slope to see terraced fields. There were more houses, now made from timber, with shrivelled leaves of some sort pinned up like washing. Then, rounding a bend, we came upon the Dengchigou Catholic Mission.

It was locked up and there was not a soul to be seen. Yong Deng, whose voice would not have been heard, opened the car door and leaned unceremoniously on the horn. Eventually a young woman appeared and walked over to where we were standing beneath the Mission’s massive double-door. Above it, a sign read: “To serve the people,” something the woman did very well, handing over two tickets in exchange for 40RMB or £4 (above).

She sorted through a bunch of keys and unlocked the double-doors (above). I expected it to creak and it did not let me down. I stepped over the threshold and into a large and empty courtyard. Bar the absence of Armand David, his fellow Catholic cronies and some cultural relics that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, I felt as though I had stepped back more than 140 years to 1869. For it was then that David lived and worked in the mission and collected four panda skins widely acknowledged to have been the first pandas collected in the name of science.

More soon.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The journey begins

When in China last month, I succeeded in getting to the Dengchigou Catholic Mission, the official starting point for the giant panda’s historical journey.

I spent about four hours in a car, being driven up into the mountains north of Ya’an City (which is a couple of hours west of Chengdu, which is the capital of Sichuan Province, which is about 2000 km southwest of Beijing, and you all know where that is so I’ll stop). It was my only journey outside a big city, so it would be a mistake to generalise about life in rural China, but I was mesmerised and terrified in equal measures by the sheer industry of the people I passed by that morning.
In the first biggish town we came to – Lushan – it was the industry of individuals I noticed, mainly men busy making, making, making things out of the world around them to make something of their lives. The speciality here seemed to be tree roots. There were workshops open to the street in which men were busy sawing, chiselling and sanding gnarled woody sculptures or varnishing the root system of what had once been a massive tree, presumably to adorn the entrance hall of some plush urban firm. Their sculptures were at once stunning and tragic.

In and around Baoxing, the next main town and the administrative seat of Baoxing County, it was not the industry of individual people that caught my eye. There was plenty of it on show, but it was hard to see amidst the full-scale mining industry that consumes this region. The raw material here is not tree roots but rock. In the industrial zone to the north of the town, factories line the street, with diamond saws spinning raw boulders into perfect table-top slabs. Trucks overloaded with vast hunks of white marble rumble in and out of urban centre (above).

Artisans hone more manageable blocks into dragons, Buddahs and the occasional panda. Road-side boutiques boast shelves of these wares. Passing cars whisk up a film of white dust that coats everything. At what must be a kind of town square, there are several sculptures celebrating the importance of Baoxing County in the panda story. There is Armand David, the Frenchman who “discovered” the first giant panda in 1869 (right). There is Ruth Harkness, the American woman who brought the first live giant panda from this region to the outside world in 1936 (below). In addition, the vast majority (69%) of the pandas gifted to other countries between 1957 and 1980 came from this one county. Beneath these sculptural shrines, the deathly Baoxing River carries its pollution slowly toward the Yangtze.

There was not a dull moment on the journey. At one point, north of Baoxing, my driver rounded a hair-raising bend on the road way above the racing Donghe River to find one of the aforementioned marble boulders sitting right across our lane; presumably it had tumbled from one of the aforementioned overloaded trucks on its way down from the mines at Guobayan. (By the way, if anyone has any info about these mines or has visited them, I’d really like to hear from them). We swerved calmly around the lump of bright, white rock and veered carefully back to the precipitous edge as if nothing had happened. On our return journey a couple of hours later, the marble had mysteriously gone, another example of Chinese industry.

Finally, about 30 km north of Baoxing, I spotted the bridge that would take us over the Donghe and into the Dengchi Valley. There is a large hoarding advertising Armand David and the Dengchigou Catholic Mission, though it’s now obscured by a couple of conifers (photo). That nobody had thought to cut them down suggests that perhaps Chinese industry does not yet extend to such out-of-the-way cultural relics or the country’s still amazing biodiversity. The successful bid to turn the mountains above this industrious valley into a World Heritage Site includes a proposal to build a museum at this precise spot “to celebrate and interpret the amazing collecting work of Pere Armand David”.

In the next post, I will recount my journey up the Dengchi Valley to the Catholic Mission.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

I’m back

Sorry it’s taken me so long to post since returning from China. I had a brilliant trip, mainly because everyone I approached was so generous with their time and talked so openly about some really tricky subjects. What was particularly useful for me – something I hadn’t anticipated – was to have ten days wandering around thinking solely about pandas (and not about what son A needs in his school bag, who’s picking son B up from nursery and what to try to feed them for tea). It was a pretty weird existence, spending every minute in the day juggling a host of different ideas, honing sentences in my head and pondering new perspectives on pandas. What with the jet-lag, which I didn’t quite get over, I spent much of the night doing the same. So by the time my plane touched down at Heathrow, I had made huge progress towards meeting my end-of-April deadline. It is still possible, I think.

I will gradually drip through some of my reflections from China in future posts, but would like to thank the Society of Authors here for a small grant that made it possible. I applied in September last year to the K. Blundell Trust, which “gives grants to British authors under the age of 40 whose project is for a British publisher. The project must aim to increase social awareness, and can be fiction or non-fiction.” This trip was so important for me and I made it at just the right time, sufficiently up-to-speed on everything panda to get the most out of my flying visit.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Panda business

I am currently touring China on panda business. I have so much to cram into my 10-day-visit that I figured I might not have the time to post blogs or the ready means to do so. So I wrote this entry before I left the UK. If all has gone well, I have now taken in several panda-related sights in Beijing, including the Mission that Armand David stayed at when he first arrived in the capital in the early 1860s, the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Center for Nature and Society at Peking University. And pandas willing, I will now be in Chengdu, preparing to visit the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding tomorrow and then to get into the mountains.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Nature Live

On 23 March, I will be presenting a Nature Live event in the Attenborough Studio of the new Darwin wing at the Natural History Museum. It is, perhaps predictably, on Chi-Chi the giant panda (above). I have 20 minutes to cover her life and legacy. There’s more information on the Museum website. It’s a free event. Everyone is most welcome.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Profile Autumn Catalogue

My publisher Profile Books has just brought out its catalogue for Autumn 2010. You can get the PDF here.

I appear on page 9, along with the super jacket of poster of Su Lin produced in the 1930s after he became the first panda to be brought out of China alive. The title and subtitle, which I canvased opinion on in an earlier blog post, have also been set. The book will be called The Way of the Panda: A Curious History of China's Political Animal. I had offered a gratis copy of my book to anyone that suggested the subtitle that eventually got used. Unless I'm very much mistaken - and in spite of more than 200 comments to the post and many more title suggestions - the exact configuration of words that I've gone with was settled between myself and my editor at Profile. Sorry to disappoint.

My editor also dropped me an email to say that the publishing date has been brought forward to 30 September for "logistical reasons". I take that as polite code for "get a move on".