Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Panda news round-up

Several British papers have carried a story about the Brit Insurance Design Awards. I don’t know much about these and they are probably quite important and worthy of news coverage. But what was interesting for me was to see that The Design Museum, which has an exhibition of shortlisted entries for the awards, has managed to get lots of coverage by allowing editors to reproduce photographs of a panda-based entry. I have previously blogged about Panda Eyes by Jason Bruges, which is an array of decommissioned WWF collecting boxes that sense movement and follow you wherever you go (see YouTube video above). On Monday this week, a panel of judges picked a winner from each of the 7 categories and then chose an overall winner. Their choice will be revealed on the Culture Show on BBC2 next Thursday 4 March. They’ll just have to choose the panda won’t they?

Panda News
reports that the young Zoo Atlanta panda youngster Xi Lan has just started to be weaned from his mother Lun Lun. He is 18-months old and you may be able to catch a glimpse of him on the zoo’s pandacam – if you’re lucky. I interviewed Zoo Atlanta’s curator of mammals Rebecca Snyder last week, who has been studying the consequences of different weaning regimes for a young panda as it matures. In the wild, a dam will normally wean her cub when it’s between 18 and 30 months old. In captivity, it’s common practice to separate mothers and their cubs at 6 months to bring the female into heat again in the following spring. “Given the long-term , detrimental effects that other species experience with early social life disruptions, it is essential to examine the influence of contemporary rearing practices on the giant panda, especially on subsequent sexual, maternal and agonistic behaviours,” she and her colleagues wrote in 2006. In a study on pandas at the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding and Chengdu Zoo, Snyder and friends have been following the fortune of several young pandas to see if they can detect any obvious (and not so obvious) differences between those cubs weaned at six months and those weaned at a year. This is ongoing work but the early findings (published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology in 2003) indicates that cubs that are reared with their peer-group do not get as much social stimulation as those that grow up with their mothers. When I get to Chengdu in a couple of weeks’ time, I hope to find out more about the latest findings from Panda Base director Zhang Zhihe.

I missed this story in my last panda news round-up. According to an Associated Press story from 9 February, a wild panda stranded on a mountainside was “lured” to safety with bananas. What’s interesting about this very brief and apparently frivolous snippet is that the villagers who discovered it did not attempt a rescue effort themselves. Instead they called in the authorities. “The panda is a national treasure, so everyone’s scared to hurt it," a forestry official said. It’s now more than 20 years since China introduced stiff penalties (including – in certain situations – the death penalty) for anyone messing with wild pandas.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Panda makeover

Pesenter Jimmy Doherty with labcoat, gloves and clipboard at the Natural History Museum last night to film a sequence for the forthcoming BBC documentary The Museum of Life. The first episode airs on 18 March on BBC2 at 8pm and Chi-Chi will make her appearance in the sixth and final episode on 22 April.

The effect of removing the panoramic glass panel to Chi-Chi's case was really quite striking. Suddenly she became much more real. I was trying hard to contain my excitement, but I clearly failed because at one point, Doherty looked out of the case and caught sight of me hovering behind the cameras. "You can't wait to get in can you?" he quipped.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Panda wins over Avatar

I was going to see Avatar tonight with all the 3D, IMAX-related frippery. But a panda has stopped me.

It’s Chi-Chi again, the famous 1960s panda that lived at London Zoo, hooked up with Moscow’s An-An and is now stuffed in the Natural History Museum in London. She’s been in the same glass case since her death in 1972 – so for the whole of my lifetime – and (like me) she is no longer the spectacle she once was. This is not down to the taxidermy, which is first-rate, but due to the fact that times have changed and the public appetite for hastily produced natural history dioramas is not what it once was. The museum staff are going to break into her case tonight for the first time in nearly 38 years.

The BBC will be there to film (for some big documentary about the museum) and it's them (rather than the panda) that’s causing me to miss Avatar. Chi-Chi’s coming-out was supposed to have taken place last night but at the last moment the BBC announced it couldn’t make it so rescheduled for this evening. This is most annoying as the Avatar tickets have been booked for over a month – the earliest available – and I’ve had to let down my two best chums. But they were very understanding. “Dude, such a b&w panda-tastic moment is not for the missing,” emailed one this morning. “Enjoy the furry enormousness!”

I am indeed excited about this latest stage in Chi-Chi’s journey. It would be nice to think that my Radio 4 documentary last year focused the museum’s minds on the potential of this exhibit, but in reality I know that they’ve been wanting to bring new life to this important panda for a while. One suggestion is that they will take Chi-Chi’s skeleton (from the west side of the North Hall archway) and Chi-Chi’s skin (from the east side of the archway) and bring them together – or at least alongside one another – in the main hall in the shadow of the great model of Diplodocus carnegii. It would be very a radical Damien Hirst, out-of-body exhibit and, in my opinion, just what’s needed to force the public to engage with these kinds of exhibits more thoughtfully.

I intend to weave this latest development into a chapter I've written on Chi-Chi for the Afterlives of Animals project I'm contributing to. Note to self, I have to have this revised chapter in to the editor by the end of the month!

Photo courtesy of The Official Avatar Movie's photostream on Flickr (with star appearance by Chi-Chi courtesy of China's Global Icon or CGI).

Panda news round-up

ABC News ran a cheerful anthropomorphic Valentine's Day story about panda pornography in which the reporter got an interview with Zhang Zhihe, director of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. The panda blog Pandas Live On has posted the broadcast version of the interview. I am lucky enough to have been granted a few minutes with Dr Zhang when I go there next month. I am so excited about my trip.

Pandas Live On and Panda News have also picked up on the news reported late last week that Japan is to get a pair of pandas.

A rather thin story appeared in The Sunday Times at the weekend, claiming a link between President Obama’s decision to meet with the Dalai Lama this week and China’s recall of the young panda Tai Shan (above) from the US National Zoo on 4 February. The problem is that the article gives no concrete evidence in support of this speculation and only weak circumstantial evidence.

Tai Shan – born at the National Zoo in 2005 – had been due to go back to China in 2007. That much was written into the legal agreement between China and the National Zoo. As his second birthday approached, the National Zoo negotiated a two-year extension, which ran out in July last year and then a further six-month extension that would take it until early this year. Meanwhile, Barak Obama made a point of avoiding the Dalai Lama until he had met with China’s leaders in November last year. It was during this summit that he is supposed to have politely informed them he would meet with the spiritual leader in due course and not long afterwards, on 4 December 2009, that National Zoo confirmed Tai Shan would be going back some time over the winter. He (and Mei Lan from Zoo Atlanta) arrived in China earlier this month.

The Sunday Times story appears to be based solely on this rather weak coincidence of dates. It does claim that “Chinese authorities have said there are no plans to send any more pandas to America”, which might be worth paying attention to if they bothered to say who these authorities were. From recent conversations I’ve had with panda scientists at the National Zoo, San Diego Zoo and Zoo Atlanta, it sounds as though the panda loan programme in the US (and elsewhere) continues to go from strength to strength.

Photo reproduced according to the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license, courtesy of Fernando Revilla.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Making families

I am proud. My 5-year-old son set about classifying the natural world last night or, as he put it, “making families” with his soft toys. But would he put the panda with the bears?

It was bed time but he wasn’t tired. Actually, he was but as “sleep is boring” he’s found lots of ways of putting off the moment when his brain has to settle down for the night. “Making families” is a new one and he came up with it himself. It basically involved gathering all his dog toys in a pile and all his bear toys in another. I was in the kitchen when my wife informed me of his latest wheeze and my mind leapt immediately on his two toy pandas. This is the sorry consequence of reading and writing almost exclusively about these extraordinary creatures since September.

My son has two pandas, presents from me of course. One came from the gift-shop at the Natural History Museum in London so is called Chi-Chi. The other came from the gift-shop at Schonbrunn Zoo in Vienna so is called Fu Long. The question of where pandas sit in the tree of life has occupied scientists for more than 100 years and whilst I have foisted a lot of the panda baggage I am carrying onto my inquisitive son, I have spared him the furore surrounding the species’ taxonomy. To surmise, up until 1985 there were two main schools of thought: either the panda was most closely related to bears or to raccoons. Molecular data has now as good as settled the debate in favour of the bears.

So what would my sleepy son choose? I decided I would give him half an hour to complete his classification and fall asleep. Then I would sneak into his bedroom and assess his handiwork. When I got there, everything was in a bit of a jumble but I could make out a vaguely doggy zone and a heap of bears. Chi-Chi and Fu Long did not seem to be in the picture. I straightened his duvet and resolved to follow the matter up in the morning.

When, over a bowl of cereal, I nonchalantly enquired about the “making families” game and observed that he did not seem to have placed the pandas with the bears, he looked at me like I was dumb. “Pandas are pandas,” he said. It was a glorious moment for my son is in good company. In The Last Panda, eminent field zoologist George Schaller found the question of the panda’s closest-living relative rather missed the point. The panda has similarities to both bears and raccoons but its remarkable differences set it apart from either group. “A panda is a panda,” was his poetic conclusion.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Deadline stress

One rule of freelance writing is that you never miss a deadline. Never. I’ll confess that there have been a couple of instances where I’ve asked an editor for the weekend to put the finishing touches on a feature they’d expected on the Friday. If they were to have said no, I would have delivered on time. But they said yes, so they got a more polished product sitting in their inbox on Monday morning.

In my contract with Profile Books, I am supposed to have delivered the complete manuscript of The Way of the Panda by the end of January. This date was set because I wrote in my proposal, which went out to publishers last summer, that I’d need six months to finish the book. But, of course, it took a while for the signatures to appear on the contract so that I didn’t really get writing until September. Profile clearly appreciated this as they agreed to a 90-day grace period being added to the notional end-of-January deadline, so if I deliver by 1 May I will have met my contractural obligations. I am still fairly confident I can do it, though as the deadline approaches it’s becoming increasingly clear how tight things are going to be.

I haven’t posted for the last couple of weeks because I’ve been busy putting the finishing touches to three chapters, the central ones in the book that cover all panda-related shenanignas from 1950 to 1980. I have had these in an almost-finished state for a while, but the final step of making the writing slick is pretty time consuming. This is because they juggle lots of ideas

In one, I tell the story of efforts to get Chi-Chi and An-An to mate, an early effort to breed pandas in captivity that resulted in an absolutely extraordinary level of media attention. This, I argue, had a profound effect on the way the world sees pandas and on panda conservation. In addition, I have woven in asides about global nuclear test ban treaty negotiations, early examples of captive breeding, the birth of the first panda in captivity (Ming-Ming in Beijing in 1963), Anglo-Soviet relations during in the 1960s, espionage, clinical trials of human fertility drugs, the summer of love, the Prague Spring, Konrad Lorenz and second-wave feminism. It is not difficult to write a few hundred words on each of these. The challenge is to find a way to work them seamlessly into the chapter, choosing the moment to break from the central Chi-Chi/An-An plot, deliver the aside and then return to the story. I haven’t found a way to speed up this process of integration. I have to have to be up to speed with all the ideas and have them knocking around in my mind for a week or more before they gradually begin to settle into place.

Anyway, I now have three more chapters to send to my editor at Profile. When they reach him, I will have delivered 7/12 chapters. I still have a lot of work to do, two chapters that cover 1900 to 1949 and two chapters that cover 1995 to the present. Then a prologue and an epilogue. I think I can still do all this by the end of April but know already that it’s going to be tight.