A couple of years ago before I left for a trip to China an imperial princess told me to get a picture of a panda. I pointed out that there were a zillion pictures of pandas on the web, so there was no point in my trooping out to a zoo to take another picture. Ahhh, but none of those pictures were taken by Daddy. Obviously China=pandas, and the only good reason to go to China is to see pandas. This is actually a pretty widespread attitude. Now some grumpy Englishman says that we (by which I assume he means ‘China’) should “Pull the plug” on pandas. Far too much money is spent on them, and there is almost no hope them ever becoming a wild species again. Mostly this is just typical grousing about how large or cute animals get all the funding, and pandas are both of course.
Jen Phillips, however, points out that there are things to do with pandas besides have them live in the wild (the holy grail of most conservation efforts.) The Chinese government makes a ton of money renting them out to zoos around the world, and they are a powerful symbol of China both internationally and domestically. Obviously the Chinese government is the one making the calls here, and they are not going to stop breeding pandas.
Actually, pandas today are not that different from the animals in the imperial menagerie in imperial times. At least back to the Han the emperor was expected to have a park that had all manner of odd animals and plants that could not be found elsewhere, symbolizing his universal rule. Sima Xiangru’s Sir Fantasy is probably the most famous description of one of these parks. This tradition continued in some form until the Qing, given that the Qing Imperial Park was the last place you could find Pere David’s Deer
The Imperial population of Pere David’s Deer, or Milu 麋鹿 was finally wiped out during the Boxer Rebellion, when foreign troops ate them. Some of the herd had been given to Europeans as diplomatic gifts, however, and from those the population was rebuilt. Apparently the Emperor’s herd had been isolated for so long that any bad genes had been bred out, and so you could re-build from a very tiny number of animals. Milu have been extinct in the wild for about a thousand years, and it is not even clear what their original range was. They surrvived for a very long time as imperial animals, however, and maybe pandas will too. I suppose it would help if they were better at mating.