Bao Bao's debut

[screenshots taken from the National Zoo's Panda Cam]

The Smithsonian National Zoo's baby Giant Panda, Bao Bao, makes her public debut today. She's one of more than 300 pandas in zoos and breeding centers around the world, and there are about 1,600 pandas in the wilderness of south central China. Giant Pandas are rare and endangered, and have become a symbol for the animal conservation movement.

In modern times, images of pandas are ubiquitous and people young and old know about pandas. But even in China, where these adorable animals have been considered noble creatures for millenia, they were rarely seen. Apparently, there are no known artistic depictions of pandas from before the 20th century. So, when was the West first introduced to Giant Pandas?

The first Westerner to find Giant Panda furs was probably the French missionary/zoologist/botanist Armand David in 1869. The first live panda sighting by a Westerner was made by a German expedition in 1916: a panda cub was purchased by Hugo Weigold, but the cub did not survive long enough to make it back to Europe. President Theodore Roosevelt's sons Kermit and Theodore Jr. brought back a panda they killed in 1928.

The popularity of pandas did not explode until Ruth Harkness took a live panda out of China in 1936. How did a fashion designer from New York City become the first person to introduce live pandas to the West? Ruth Harkness decided to continue her husband's quest to find a panda after he passed away in Shanghai (from cancer) during his expedition. The story of Ruth's journey and adventure are chronicled in Mrs. Harkness and the Panda (2012), a picture book by Alicia Potter (and illustrated by Melissa Sweet).

The panda cub, Su-Lin, was sold to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago for about $9,000, and was joined by Mei Mei, another panda Ruth brought back from China, the following year. Sadly, Su-Lin didn't live very long in captivity; he died of pneumonia in 1938. You can see the stuffed Su-Lin at the Field Museum in Chicago:

It's unthinkable now that anyone could walk out of China with a panda cub in her arms, but that's how the West's mass exposure to pandas all began. The pandas currently in zoos around the world are on loan from the Chinese government for $1,000,000 per year (for up to 10 years), and any cubs born during that time belong to China. That means Bao Bao will eventually be sent to China (or anywhere the Chinese government wants to send her).

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