Pugilistic Pandas Please

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No more Mr. Nice Guy

Back at the beginning of the year, I wrote piece in the magazine and several posts on this blog about the case of Xiang Xiang, the captive-bred panda who was returned to the wild as part of a supposed effort at reintroducing bears bred in captivity pandas into the wild. We talked to Zhang Hemin, director of the Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda at Wolong and I later visited the center and spoke to him and other scientists. Zhang and his colleagues maintained that they didn’t know if Xiang Xiang was still alive. He had disappeared after losing a fight with a wild panda, they said. Turns out they were being economical with the truth. Xiang Xiang’s body was actually found by scientists at the Center on Februry 19th, weeks before I got there. Why did they have to keep his death a secret for so long? Well, Zhang told a Xinhua reporter that they had needed all that time (the story came out a few days ago) to establish for sure the cause of death. When my colleague Jodi Xu asked him why he had not told the truth about discovering the bear’s corpse, this is what he had to say: “I hinted you that he was dead when I said that I did not know where he was but we were still trying to find him. If you could not tell, that was your problem, I have nothing to say. You should understand, as a serious research project I am leading here, I could not tell you that Xiang Xiang was dead before we knew the exact reason why he was dead.”

Seems pretty unconvincing to me. In fact, given Zhang’s general defensiveness (“We are all sad about Xiang Xiang, but it doesn’t mean the project has failed,” he told the reporter) and the four months it took to do an autopsy it seems to me that he knew the skepticism that greeted Xiang Xiang’s release in the first place (and which was the main point of my story) would only be redoubled by the news of his death. Poor old Xiang Xiang. Sent naked into the jungle. Oh well, at least his successors will be better equipped to deal with their wild cousins. Another scientist at the center told the Xinhua reporter that: “We have to give captive-bred pandas better survival training, especially combat and defense skills” Panda gongfu. Wonderful. I look forward to the training sessions.