On a chilly spring day in 1966, zookeepers in London loaded a giant panda named Chi-Chi onto a commercial plane. The aircraft was bound for Russia. Chi-Chi was bound, you might say, for love. She would soon arrive at the Moscow Zoo to meet a slightly younger male named An-An, the only other captive giant panda living outside of China at the time. The goal was to get the two bears to breed.
To prepare for Chi-Chi’s departure, British European Airways removed about 30 seats in the front of the plane. The panda was carried aboard in a crate and separated from 37 passengers by a screen. Flight attendants sprayed deodorant to try and vanquish the scent of the 235-pound bear. For lunch, the attendants served passengers a side of bamboo hearts in Chi-Chi’s honor.
The Plight of the Giant Panda
The media breathlessly covered the long-distance love affair. Yet it was doomed from the start. When the bears first met in Moscow, An-An attacked Chi-Chi and zookeepers had to separate them with brooms, one newspaper reported. The pandas stayed in separate cages that summer. In the fall, keepers arranged another meeting, but this time, Chi-Chi “slapped” An-An in the face. Soon after, Chi-Chi returned to London, prompting headlines like “From Russia … Without Love.”
Although attempts to breed Chi-Chi and An-An failed, they marked the start of a massive, global campaign to breed pandas in captivity. It was fueled by a sense of urgency: The giant panda population was dwindling. In southwestern China, the only place on Earth where the animals live, human development was destroying forests, and pandas were being plucked from their land and placed in zoos. In the 1980s, only about 1,100 bears remained, down from a historical population that scientists believe once numbered in the tens of thousands.
The Conservation Efforts
As pandas started vanishing from the wild, they grew into powerful symbols of the movement to conserve the natural world. The plight of wildlife was making headlines, and pandas — clumsy, big-eyed bears that look like plush toys come to life — emerged as the perfect mascot to rally support.
The World Wildlife Fund, an influential environmental organization, helped formalize the animals as icons when it chose the panda as its logo in 1961. Chi-Chi, An-An’s wouldn’t-be mate, was the inspiration for the design. (WWF, now known internationally as the World Wide Fund for Nature, chose the panda, in part, because black-and-white logos were cheaper to print.)
The Road to Recovery
These efforts have unquestionably paid off for pandas. Scientists learned from Chi-Chi and An-An’s platonic exchange and, in time, they nearly perfected the difficult art of panda breeding and husbandry. That’s the only reason you can see them in zoos today.
The bears are also recovering in the wild. The most recent estimates indicate that more than 1,800 pandas now live in southwestern China, and their numbers are increasing. That trend prompted the country to announce, in 2021, that pandas are no longer endangered. (The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the global authority on endangered animals, delisted pandas in 2016.)
The Future of Conservation
Imagine that: The panda, the very symbol of endangered species, is no longer endangered. But if giant pandas are mascots for endangered species, then their team is, so to speak, losing. In the time that environmental advocates were saving pandas, much of the rest of the planet’s wildlife continued to deteriorate. The world now faces an unprecedented and accelerating crisis of biodiversity loss, with more than 1 million species at risk of extinction. Forests are quieter. The oceans are emptier.
Are pandas still endangered?
No, pandas are no longer considered endangered. The most recent estimates indicate that more than 1,800 pandas now live in southwestern China, and their numbers are increasing.
What efforts have been made to save pandas?
Efforts to save pandas have included captive breeding programs, establishment of protected areas, and creating forest reserves to protect the bears. China also announced plans to combine many of these reserves into a single habitat three times larger than Yellowstone National Park.
How successful are panda breeding programs?
While panda breeding is challenging due to the female pandas ovulating just once a year for one to three days, the science has improved over the years. The survival rate of captive cubs in China has increased from about 10 percent to almost 90 percent.