when a french priest discovered a panda

This August 4, 2017 will go down in the history of pandas in France thanks to the first birth on our territory of this animal symbol, still listed on the red list of endangered species. Even if one of the Beauval zoo twins, too weak, died very quickly. It is also an event that revives very long-standing close ties with China. Distinguished by the Chinese competition, Jerome Puy is one of the three “pambassadores” in the world., a lifetime panda ambassador. The soul of the panda.fr help site, it answered our questions.

It all started with the Basque priest Armand David?

Yes, we were at the time, in the late 1800s, when the National Museum of Natural History relied on evangelists, in this case the Lazarists, to create scientific research and naturalistic research missions. And Armand David was also a naturalist. He taught natural sciences in Savona, Italy, and was therefore an ideal candidate for these missions in China, unknown to the West from this point of view. At the request of the Congregation of Lazarists, he was sent there wearing a double hat: a missionary and a naturalist. And David, who always dreamed of going to unknown lands, immediately agreed. He left at the age of 44, began working in Beijing, and the Museum quickly produced enthusiastic reports, emphasizing both the quality of his materials and his notes and drawings. Mostly new species.

Father Armand David in Qing Dynasty formal wear, August 2, 1872 (via panda.fr)

So, in agreement with the Vincents, the Museum is going to send it to more remote areas?

The Ministry of Public Education then even began to finance the expedition. Armand David is mainly accompanied by a dozen local residents: guides and hunters. He often travels in sedans with his crew. This allows him to discover lands for which he had neither a map nor an idea of ​​the best places to find species. And then he relies on a network of lazarists in the country and pays local hunters for his trips to the regions, for example, to southern Mongolia.

Before the “scientific” discovery of the giant panda. Overnight?

No. First, in May 1868, the naturalist priest went to central China and eastern Tibet, which corresponds to modern Sichuan. Then, in February 1869, he arrived at the so-called “Mupen principality” in Sichuan. And it is there that he first hears about the black-and-white bear, thanks to the priest who leads the local board of foreign missions. A few days later, on March 11, 1869, Father David finished his day of exploration with a resident, a certain Mr. Lee, and saw the flat skin of the famous black and white bear. There, he immediately notes that this is a “wonderful view” and immediately sets his hunters on his trail. The hunters bring him a young black and white bear for the first time, dead on March 23, 1869.

This photograph of the first copy sent to the Paris Museum is displayed along with other memorabilia in the Catholic Church of Dengchigou (Sichuan), where Father David lived.
This photograph of the first copy sent to the Paris Museum is displayed along with other memorabilia in the Catholic Church of Dengchigou (Sichuan), where Father David lived.

Credits: March 31, 2015 – © Jérôme POUILE

With the first description in their notebooks.

On the evening of March 23, he draws and in fact writes that “the young polar bear, which is being sold to me at a very high price, is all white except for four limbs, ears and around the eyes, which are deep black. These colors are the same as the adult skin I examined the other day on Hunter Lee.” And he immediately suggests that this is a new type of bear, which is “remarkable not only for its color, but also for its furry legs below and other characteristics.” A few days later, he specified for the first adult animal taken: “The head of the animal is very large, the round muzzle is short, and not pointed, like that of the Peking bear. .” He already classifies it as a bear, which today is his official classification after much debate.

But the locals already knew about this giant panda. What did they say?

They say that they really always saw it around them and that it is a rather peaceful animal, which is easier to hunt than a black bear. And these locals also say that pandas eat plants, move rather slowly and are rather few in number, live in the highest forested mountains. At that time, it was hunted for meat, like other animals. But that was during the years when China was a bit on its own. Whereas if we go back to older times, we will see traces of the symbolic side of the giant panda. I think there was a whole period in the third century AD when historians and archaeologists were able to demonstrate that the panda was already a symbol of peace, an animal that was valued in some way, such a diplomatic animal, because it was offered in Japan in the 6th century AD.

A plaque affixed by WWF to the façade of Father Armand David's birthplace in Espelette.
A plaque affixed by WWF to the façade of Father Armand David’s birthplace in Espelette.

Credits: Wikipedia

(Note that in 2015, a Chinese village in Sichuan rebuilt after the earthquake was renamed “David’s New Village”, phonetically “Dawei Xingkong” in Chinese, after David’s father.)

To what extent did Father David discover the giant panda?

Panda, however, has been known to the Chinese for a long time. The first work that confidently refers to it is a treatise on geography, which is more than 2700 years old! On the other hand, what Armand David brings is to prove to the Western world the existence of this animal. From his supply and his first scientific description, before that the director of the Museum of Natural History, based on the supply of specimens from David. And we’ll stop at the panda, but David sent in thousands of plants, birds he was passionate about, and hundreds of mammals. With many other discoveries in China, including the famous “Father David’s deer”. Panda is finally the tip of the iceberg!

And when will the first pandas arrive in France?

The first dead specimen arrived by boat in Paris in 1869. But the first live panda arrived in France in 1939. Caught in the wild and purchased by an animal dealer, she spent several days at the Zoo de Vincennes. He toured Germany and stayed from 24 May to 6 June 1939 at the Zoo de Vincennes. Before heading to Cherbourg, head to the United States.

Then, in the midst of “panda diplomacy”, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai offered two pandas to President Pompidou during his trip there. They arrived in Paris in December 1973. But contrary to what the Chinese authorities thought, it was two males, not a female and a male! In addition, one of the two died only a few months later. But surviving Yen Yen lived at the Vincennes Zoo for a relatively long time, until January 2000 (1:41 in the video).

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The Beauval Zoo, which had begun to become popular, intended to continue this close relationship between the two countries and later entered into negotiations. Therefore, it was in January 2012 that the very first couple arrived there, provided on loan with the consent of the President of China. At that time, they were not yet old enough to breed, and artificial insemination had to be carried out. With a pleasant surprise, last week I discovered thanks to an ultrasound that the woman was pregnant.

But these Beauval twins are French?

No. Their parents, Huan Huan (“Happy”) and Yuan Zi (“Roundhead’s Son”), were lent by China until at least 2022, with France paying a priori about a million dollars a year, even if the amount was never formalized by Beauval. And the same loan agreement stipulates that any young person born in France remains the property of the Chinese government and returns to China shortly before his puberty, at the age of 4 or 5 years. Which is generally logical, since it is inconceivable that a panda that is born in France will breed tomorrow with its father or mother. It will return to China to be included in the captive breeding program for the species. Knowing that China only lends its pandas to “friendly” nations and who create a certain number of economic partnerships, we should not hide this. So France made an official request during the time of Nicolas Sarkozy. And France received a positive opinion, because at that time there were good diplomatic, commercial and industrial relations between the two countries.

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