Issue 305: 2021 12 16: Panda v Pangolin

16 December 2021

Panda v. Pangolin

Lithuania, Czech Republic, China & Taiwan

By Neil Tidmarsh

Pandas look sweet, of course; furry, cuddly, roly-poly teddy bears in a simple but elegant black and white outfit. It’s as if the Great Designer was handed a one-word brief – “cute” – and fulfilled it to award-winning perfection.

Nevertheless, they’re very strange creatures indeed. They don’t like sex.  They’re barely fertile. They’re monophagous (a weird word for a weird concept – it’s only really used for insects, which just goes to shows how weird it is for a mammal to be monophagous) ie they can eat one thing and one thing only. And as if that isn’t strange enough, that one thing is bamboo – tough, woody, tasteless, hellishly difficult to digest and nutritionally negligible. They are boringly inert, barely stirring from one bamboo shoot to another. No wonder Chris Packham said it’s bizarre that they’re still with us – by all the laws of nature, they should have become extinct centuries ago. They’re an evolutionary dead-end, a Darwinian disaster.

But perhaps the strangest thing of all is that every single panda in the world is owned by the CCP government of China. Yes, all the ones in the wild (but isn’t the definition of a ‘wild’ animal one that isn’t owned by anybody?) and all the ones in zoos (even zoos outside China – and any offspring automatically becomes the property of the CCP). It’s as if every single red squirrel was owned by the UK government, or the SNP government in Edinburgh decided that it owned every single Scottish wildcat (actually, that does somehow seem rather scarily credible).

Panda diplomacy is the trump card held by Beijing in the game of soft power, of course. It’s a card that’s carefully propagated and carefully dealt by Beijing – and equally carefully looked-after by those zoos and countries given the honour of providing board and lodging to such high-status guests. As a result, this Chinese citizen is probably the most monitored living thing on the planet, under constant surveillance whether in exile far from home or out in the bamboo forests and breeding stations of its native Cathay. Big Brother is watching every minute of every day. There is no privacy, whether the poor creature is eating, sleeping, having sex or giving birth.

This week it became clear that one country – Lithuania – has blown its chances of being granted the privilege of looking after one of these strange creatures.  Lithuania has protested against the persecution of Uighurs, the repression in Hong Kong and the recent attempts by China to buy up its infrastructure. It has withdrawn from Beijing’s 17+1 group (which channels investment into central and eastern Europe) and – most critically – it has allowed Taiwan to open a diplomatic office in its capital Vilnius. Taiwan has similar offices in twenty-five other countries but the one in Vilnius is unique in that it operates under the actual name ‘Taiwan’ and not the Beijing-approved name ‘Taipei’. Beijing responded by withdrawing its ambassador from Vilnius last month. And this week, according to Lithuanian officials, China has started to pressurise European firms into boycotting Lithuanian goods and businesses.

So, no panda for Vilnius zoo, then. But other news from Eastern Europe this week suggests that all is not lost for animal lovers in Lithuania.

Two years ago, the Czech Republic was preparing itself to welcome pandas to Prague zoo. Plans were drawn up for a state-of-the-art panda house and for a ‘linking agreement’ between Prague and Beijing. But it all went pear-shaped when the city council turned down the linking agreement because it demanded a formal recognition that Taiwan was Chinese territory. Beijing was not happy, to put it mildly. That state-of-the-art panda house was never built.

Nothing daunted, the mayor of Prague, Zdenek Hrib, visited Taiwan. Prague and Taipei are now sister cities. And this week, his Facebook page and Taiwan’s Central News Agency announced that Taipei Zoo is sending a pair of pangolins to the Czech Republic. A friendly gesture; the mayor of Taipei, Ko Wen-je, announced that “Maintaining friendship is more effective than wielding power.” The male pangolin, Guo Bao, and the female, Run Hou-Tang, will arrive next March and set up home in Prague Zoo’s jungle area. Pangolin diplomacy has begun.

In a weird sort of way, the pangolin (or scaly anteater) is as sweet and cute as the giant panda. It’s almost as if the Great Designer was handed a three-word brief – “cute but weird” – and fulfilled it with award-winning perfection. It’s covered in scales, like no other mammal. It has a very long tongue, very short legs and very sharp claws. It can be as smelly as a skunk. It has no teeth and can’t chew. However, if the panda is sweet-looking but everything else about it is weird, the pangolin is weird-looking but everything else about it is smart and highly-evolved. It can curl up into an armour-plated ball when threatened. Its very long, very sticky tongue is perfect for rooting out the ants and termites on which it feeds. Its sharp claws are perfect for burrowing into the nests of ants and termites and for climbing trees and stripping away bark to get at the insects underneath. Its skunk-like emissions are perfect for seeing off competitors without risking dangerous physical harm. Although it has four legs, it can stand and walk on two legs. To make up for its lack of teeth and inability to chew, it ingests small stones which do the job by grinding away at the food in its stomach, which has evolved a spiny lining to further aid digestion.

Like the panda, however, it’s a highly endangered animal. It’s the most trafficked mammal in the world, highly-prized throughout the Far East and in parts of Africa as a culinary delicacy and as a source of traditional medicines. Its natural habitat is decreasing due to deforestation. Being unfairly scapegoated for the spread of deadly diseases hasn’t helped, either. (Although it can carry some coronaviruses, it seems that the studies which claimed that it passed Covid-19 to humans were deeply flawed. Anyway, it just goes to show how stupid it is to treat this unfortunate animal as a snack or a medicine cabinet.) Illegally hunted, trafficked and eaten in Ghana, China, Vietnam, Myanmar and many other countries, its one refuge is Taiwan (itself a threatened, persecuted and endangered entity), where conservation areas protect the native pangolins and rehabilitation centres care for rescued pangolins.

So who needs pandas? Come on, Lithuania, cheer up – it looks like you could be on a fast-track to host a much more fascinating but equally threatened animal. Have a word with Ko Wen-je and start building a pangolin enclosure in Vilnius zoo right now.

Tile photo: A J T Johnsingh, WWF-India & NCF (Wikimedia/Creative Commons).

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