Big Panda Energy


2 January 2020

In 2006, biology student Nathan Yaussy launched a blog dedicated to “endangered ugly things”.

It was an effort, he wrote, to “promote awareness of endangered species that wouldn’t otherwise get noticed due to appearance or obscurity”. Endangered Ugly Things featured humorous and informative posts about creatures such as the Ohio lamprey, a blood-sucking eel with a gaping, multi-toothed maw for a head, and the biological ingenuities of the old world sucker footed bat, purple burrowing frog and legless skink. Then, in 2010, Yaussy added the giant panda to the list.

This was an unexpected nomination. The giant panda is perhaps the most charismatic of “Charismatic megafauna”, the unofficial category for large animals that hold particular symbolic power in human culture. The panda has adorned the logo of the World Wildlife Fund since the 1960s, and has been the subject of such concerted breeding and re-wilding programmes that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared it was no longer endangered in 2016.1 The People’s Republic of China, the only country in which giant pandas appear in the wild, has used the animals as diplomatic pawns since the late 1950s, offering them to nations with which it wants to establish friendly relations. (Two of the most famous among these were Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, the pandas gifted to the United States following Richard Nixon’s state visit in 1972.) The giant panda is far from obscure. It also can’t be described as ugly.

Yaussy’s argument, however, was that this overexposure has made us oblivious to the creature’s plight. The panda is a wild animal and although its diet consists largely of bamboo, it is technically an omnivorous scavenger. “All creatures have behaviors that humans aren’t fond of,” Yaussy wrote, “but we can’t expect them to act like giant teddy bears.” Cue links to ugly video footage of pandas attacking people and gnawing on fly-encrusted carrion. At the time of the panda post, Endangered Ugly Things sold merchandise encouraging people to “Forget the panda, save the Ohio lamprey.” Even so, Yaussy was adamant: “Turning an animal into a symbol makes you forget that it’s an animal.”

I knew about Yaussy’s blog, as well as his stance on the giant panda, when I visited Copenhagen Zoo’s new panda enclosure this summer. I also knew about the complex’s diplomatic implications. Designed by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and backed at government level, it was officially opened by Queen Margrethe II on 10 April 2019. The enclosure had taken five years to design, and cost 160m Danish kroner ($24m). Denmark’s acquisition of the pandas themselves – Mao Sun, a five-year-old female, and Xing Er, a six-year-old male – had taken the best part of a decade, and makes Denmark the latest addition to a relatively small group of countries (21 as of 2019) to host pandas from the People’s Republic. At the opening, the Chinese ambassador to Denmark, Deng Ying, made the pandas’ political import clear. “The comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Denmark has continued to deepen,” she said, “and is moving towards a higher level in the new decade.”

When the panda loan was officially confirmed during Queen Margrethe’s state visit to China in 2014, it was accompanied by 40 new trade deals between the two countries. This has become the norm with panda loans: Edinburgh Zoo was offered two pandas in 2011, and the Scottish government signed an estimated £2.6bn-worth of trade deals for salmon, renewable energy and Land Rover vehicles with China shortly thereafter. China’s previous salmon provider, Norway, consequently lost its trade deal, which critics suggest was China’s response to Norway having awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the Chinese dissident activist Liu Xiaobo in 2010. It is difficult to quantify the exact role pandas play in China’s trade policy, but Oxford researcher Kathleen Carmel Buckingham, lead author of a 2013 Environmental Practice article on the topic, has suggested that “the panda can be used to seal the deal and signify a bid for a long and prosperous relationship [with host nations].” They help exercise a form of “soft, cuddly power,” as the title of the paper has it.

Equipped with this information, and Yaussy’s warnings against the teddification of the giant panda, I approached the enclosure feeling galvanised in my cynicism. The specially built Panda Shop, also by BIG, was the first structure I encountered. It touts panda slippers, panda toys, panda mugs, panda tea, panda posters, panda crystal balls, panda ice-cream, and even panda themed wireless speakers (“Be the loudest panda in the living room”). Then, past a bamboo-clad bamboo storage shed, was the circular 2,450sqm enclosure itself. Largely composed of concrete, corten steel, glass and lush greenery masterminded by Schønherr Landscape Architects, it had been sunk some 3m into the ground. Given that pandas are solitary creatures that prefer not to meet outside of the three to five days a year during which the female is in heat, it had also been divided into two equal parts. First up, as I entered the area, was Mao Sun’s pen.

I was not prepared to be so charmed. Mao had found a shaded spot under the swooping concrete arch which also serves as a pavement for visitors circumnavigating the enclosure. As I arrived, she climbed a small timber platform, flopped onto her back and set about devouring a sheaf of bamboo leaves. Soon her hind legs were wiggling indulgently in the air, like those of a tickled toddler. My jaw tightened at the sudden onset of cute aggression. Must get closer. On either side of the raised pavements were routes leading down and around the enclosure, occasionally opening up onto glazed views of the pandas at panda-level. I stopped at one such aperture but was disappointed – the glass had been scumbled with white paint to slightly above eye level. Perching awkwardly on a rock feature, I managed to peer into the pen. From there, I saw Mao from behind, close, sitting up now but still munching. Temples churning and ears twitching with every bite, she held onto the bamboo stems, adorably, with a fuzzy paw.

Mao Sun, Copenhagen Zoo's five-year-old female giant panda. IMAGE Alastair Philip Wiper.

Get a grip, I thought, stepping down to compose myself. This was neoteny at work. Features common to young mammals – large round heads, pudgy limbs, and bumbling movements – tend to elicit powerful feelings of affection in humans.2 The effect is intensified by the fact that bears are particularly easy to anthropomorphise, their proportions being roughly akin to ours. This is the irresistible appeal of the giant panda – it’s what renders it such an economic boon to zoos, and such an effective conduit for positive feelings towards China. “The political power of the panda,” writes E. Elena Songster in her 2018 book Panda Nation, “[is] its innate ability to exude an apolitical image.”

I continued along the lower circuit towards Xing Er’s pen, which was flanked not by an overpainted window, but by Panpan, an upscale Sino-French restaurant with a capacity of 150 people. Its low-lit interior had dark furniture and fittings, making the panoramic view onto Xing’s pen especially striking. Xing himself seemed unruffled by the presence of diners seated only metres from him and the large group of onlookers peering down from the upper circuit. He had propped himself against the gentle incline rising to one side of his pen and was placidly making his way through a large bouquet of bamboo. This went on for a while. Momentarily, Xing made as if to move, and the diners looked up from their plates – but he was only repositioning himself to reach more leaves. Pandas, a sign outside the restaurant read, “typically spend 16 hours a day eating up to 40kg of bamboo. For the remainder of the day, they rest.”

The enclosure and its ancillary structures are more thoroughly designed than most other buildings in the zoo.3 The concrete edifice has a rusticated effect, achieved by free-pouring cement into moulds made from bamboo rods. Similarly, stylised casts of bamboo rods in corten steel make up fencing between Mao and Xing’s enclosures, as well as decorative railings throughout the site. The plantings mimic the natural habitats of pandas in the wild, with two types of biotope – “foggy mountains” and “bamboo forest” according to Schønherr – represented. At points, images of pandas can be found embedded in the architecture. Examples include the corten-steel panel near the restaurant that sports what looks like a pinpression of a life-size animal and the enormous black and white mosaic that greeted me as I entered the ladies’ toilet. From above, BIG has explained in its promotional material, the entire structure is meant to look like a yin-yang symbol, with the male and female pens looping around each other. Thankfully, this emblem does not register when navigating the site on the ground. It might’ve been one symbol too many in a project already awash in symbolism.

The dominant materials of the enclosure are concrete and corten steel, both of which have been moulded, throughout, around bamboo. IMAGE Alastair Philip Wiper.

“The first male panda we were offered had only one testicle,” says Pernille Andersen, “so they swapped, and we got Xing Er instead.” Andersen is one of the three zookeepers appointed to look after Mao and Xing and has, along with 40 or so other zoo professionals, been an active participant in BIG’s design workshops over the past three years.

The testicles matter because, as I soon find out, the entire site is designed to facilitate the production of panda cubs. The two pens have a common area, somewhat disrupting the neatness of the aerial yin-yang shape. “They take turns accessing this, leaving a scent trace,” explains BIG partner David Zahle, who is the lead designer on the project. “Then the zookeepers will observe how they react to each others’ scents.” In March, when Mao will enter her brief oestrus, all involved hope that she and Xing will want to mate. Any resultant cubs, however, will automatically be the property of the People’s Republic because Mao and Xing are technically only on loan.

As part of her training, Andersen has visited the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China’s Sichuan province five times. Chengdu Panda Base, one of the two main panda conservation centres in China, was established in 1987 and is, as of this year, in a formal partnership with Copenhagen Zoo, which makes an annual donation of 6.5m Danish kroner ($1m). “We’ve mainly gone there in either the breeding season or when they had cubs,” says Andersen. “They like to hand-rear the cubs – so half with the keeper and half with the mother. We had to learn how to do that.”

Conservationists disagree on what is best. In nature, female pandas often birth twins but tend not to be able to care for both. Consequently, one cub is rejected and dies. Hand-rearing has meant that the survival rate for panda cubs at Chengdu is at 90-100 per cent compared to only 30 per cent in the wild. But it also means that cubs aren’t fully socialised by the mother and, according to Copenhagen Zoo vet Mads Frost Bertelsen, “miss the opportunity to learn what it is to be a panda”. Later on, mating becomes more difficult. “Most captive-bred pandas seem to have lost the knowledge of how to get in the right position,” as David Attenborough once explained. “To put it bluntly,” writes Bertelsen in Panda, a publication from Copenhagen Zoo, “we’ve managed to save this species from extinction, but perhaps we’ve gone too fast. Today, we’re left with many pandas who find it very difficult to reproduce naturally.”

“If it were up to Copenhagen Zoo, we wouldn’t hand-rear,” says Andersen. “We prefer everything to be natural.” Last winter, when the zoo’s female polar bear gave birth to two cubs, one died because it was rejected by the mother – the zoo did not step in. With the pandas, it will be different. “We have to look at the Chinese partnership,” Andersen explains. “They might want us to hand-rear and then we probably would have to do it.” For similar reasons, Bertelsen won’t forgo the option of artificial insemination. “The biggest challenge with the pandas will be to balance Copenhagen Zoo’s ‘natural’ view of nature with the international pressure to minimise risk,” he writes.

These considerations are expressed architecturally in BIG’s structure. Within the interior of the complex (off-limits to the public), there is a specially designed cub cage that is currently vacant. “If we are lucky enough to get cubs, they need to be monitored 24 hours a day,” says Zahle. “During that time, you need staff to be there constantly, even at night. So [BIG] made sure there is the possibility to have a coffee machine and a small kitchenette in that area.” There are also indoor cages for Mao and Xing, where they can withdraw from the gaze of the crowds. “We always keep the stalls open so they can go inside if they need to get away,” explains Andersen. Indoors, she and other staff have started training the pandas to accept having blood samples taken, and a special workout regime has been developed for Xing to train his hind legs. All the sitting and eating has given Xing a “weak posterior,” says one of the keepers in a YouTube video posted by the zoo. He needs the extra strength to successfully mount Mao when the time comes.

Somewhat at odds with these functions is the demand to make the pandas as visible to the public as possible. The media interest in Denmark’s new panda pair has been overwhelming – bordering, perhaps, on mania. Andersen remembers escorting the animals from China in April: “Just arriving at the airport with all the press... it was crazy. We had to arrive, get the pandas settled, and at the same time we knew there was going to be an opening with the queen soon after.” During the official opening, the monarch dined with her guests at Panpan, where a movement from a specially commissioned symphonic Panda Suite (Zhang Shuai, 2019) was premiered. The Danish media ran a steady stream of panda coverage, alternating between excited news reports (‘Now the Chinese pandas have arrived, and they are eating bamboo to their hearts’ content’ ran a headline in centre-right Jyllands-Posten) and think-pieces on panda diplomacy (‘The world’s cutest form of power’, in left-wing daily Information). At centre-left daily Politiken, some ventured that the 1m Danish kroner ($150,000) bill for the Panda Suite was perhaps a bit steep, and that it signalled an excessive willingness to pander to the People’s Republic. “It was a crazy week,” says Andersen.

Xing Er's pen opens up onto Pan Pan, a Sino-French restaurant with panoramic windows. IMAGE Alastair Philip Wiper.

Zahle’s team at BIG have had to contend with the heightened attention on the pandas in their design. “We wanted to make the barrier between animal and spectator as minimal and as transparent as possible,” he explains. “We tried to design the entire restaurant almost like a movie theatre, where everything inside is black, and the thing that stands out is all the greenery within the pen – and the animal itself.” This departs somewhat from the philosophy behind BIG’s other zoo project, the proposed re-design of Denmark’s Givskud Zoo, which the practice has named Zootopia. Here, BIG has opted to “integrate and hide the buildings as much as possible in the landscape” while the animals roam freely, consciously moving away from the cage trope. Zootopia also marks a more general shift in zoo architecture. When Michael Kozdon’s Tiger Territory opened at London Zoo in 2013, for instance, the architect remarked to The Guardian that he had tried to make the structure “fade into the background[...] our aim [was] to disappear.” This hasn’t been a feasible approach at Copenhagen Zoo. “In Zootopia,” says Zahle, “people are enclosed within moving vehicles or pods, and so it’s more like a safari park. That’s not possible in a normal zoo – there needs to be a barrier.”

The panoramic window in Panpan that opens onto Xing’s pen does not seem to bother the animal. Andersen explains that Xing has come from a zoo in Shanghai and is used to the attention: “He’s very comfortable. He has the whole restaurant looking at him and that’s not an issue at all.” But Mao is taking longer to adapt to the presence of humans. “She’s never been to any other place than Chengdu,” Andersen explains. “So she didn’t like glass. She didn’t like seeing people – or her own reflection.” The makeshift frosting I noticed on my visit was put in place to make Mao more comfortable. The zoo is currently waiting for a more permanent solution, a type of frosting through which the public can see but Mao can’t. “And then I think we’re going to do something on the other side, so that the public is not going to be standing against the window, knocking.” I remember myself balancing to catch a glimpse of Mao at this very spot. Ugh, people. What are we like?

“As a representative of Denmark, it would be nice if [Bjarke Ingels] came out in favour of human rights,” Cecilie Sita told the Danish news channel DR when the enclosure opened in April. Sita, a young student, was protesting outside the zoo with her friend Christina Kalesh, dressed in panda costumes. Other protesters in the small group waved Tibetan flags. They were disappointed by the political measures that had been taken to get the pandas to Copenhagen and BIG’s decision to design the enclosure.

In 2009, the relationship between Denmark and the People’s Republic was strained. Then-prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen had met with the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader and a figure whom Beijing views as a dangerous separatist. The status of Tibet, an autonomous region under Chinese rule since 1965, has been contested for the best part of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Rasmussen’s meeting with the Dalai Lama had been a private one, but Chinese authorities swiftly notified the Danish government that it had jeopardised relations between the two countries. Shortly afterwards, Rasmussen issued an apology, and the Danish parliament declared that it would actively work against Tibetan independence. A few years later, during a Chinese state visit to Denmark in 2012, Danish police cleared the streets of demonstrators drawing attention to the question of Tibetan independence – in breach of the freedom of assembly enshrined in the Danish constitution.

Such acts have been instrumental in securing the loan of the pandas, critics argue. “Denmark gets the pandas because we have dropped our criticism of the Chinese repression of Tibet and because Chinese human-rights violations aren’t being criticised so much,” Danish MP Eva Flyvholm told DR. “That’s a sorry background to be receiving them against.” It’s not an unwarranted critique. When Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama in 2010 despite Chinese warnings that it would “severely impair China-US relations”, Beijing responded by recalling US-born giant panda Tai Shan from the National Zoo in Washington, DC. China giveth giant pandas, and China taketh them away again if you don’t subscribe to the One-China policy.

The picture is made even murkier by an exposé that broke shortly after I visited Copenhagen Zoo. It turned out that the zoo had changed a map detailing the areas in which giant pandas appear in the wild. Initially, the chart had marked out the island of Taiwan – another disputed Chinese territory – as a separate country, featuring it in white while the rest of mainland China was represented by the colour green. When a Chinese delegation inspected the enclosure in March, shortly before the opening, it declared the map inaccurate. It was subsequently changed such that it now only shows a zoomed-in map of mainland China. “This way, we avoid taking a stance,” said a spokesperson from Copenhagen Zoo.

The enclosure is accompanied with a dedicated panda-themed souvenir shop, also designed by BIG. IMAGE Alastair Philip Wiper.

Of course, such a change represents a stance in itself, as does the zoo’s openness to artificial insemination and to hand-rearing cubs despite a previous policy not to do so. The People’s Republic presents giant pandas as tokens of friendship, but as sociologist Marcel Mauss argued in his 1924 essay ‘The Gift’, there is no such thing as a “pure” exchange. “In theory,” he wrote, gifts are voluntarily received, but “in reality they are[...] reciprocated obligatorily.” Since the 1980s, with China’s economic reform under Deng Xiaoping, the country began renting out the giant pandas it had previously given away as diplomatic gifts. Contracts are now drawn up detailing the exact cost and terms of the giant panda loans. Yet some parameters remain nebulous, dictated by the obscure obligations inherent to any gift. When Beijing recalled the US-born panda in 2010, the official reason was that the animal was there on an extended contract anyway, and the original loan deal had already expired. The extension just happened to be cancelled two days after Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama.

“The fact is, we all collaborate with China – just look at the phone in your pocket,” Ingels said when The New York Times asked him about the small group of protesters outside Copenhagen Zoo at the opening. It’s obviously a flippant remark – few of us make $24m out of “collaborating” with China – but the reference to Chinese-made electronics does speak to some of the intricacies at hand. Many Danish consumers will benefit from the trade deals struck between Denmark and China in the wake of the panda exchange. Many governments hunger for cosy ties with the world’s burgeoning superpower, and the exchange of products and natural resources that such relations entail. It is simply a bizarre contradiction of international diplomacy that the giant panda, whose symbol is used to further global-trade networks, is itself seeing its natural habitats diminish because of the unchecked resource extraction brought about by that selfsame economic growth. It is almost as if we’ve forgotten it’s an animal.

1 The giant panda is still considered “vulnerable” to extinction by IUCN, with climate change and shrinking habitats posing the greatest threats.
2 See ‘A Neotenic State of Mind’, Disegno #20.
3 With the exception, perhaps, of Foster + Partners’ impressive 2008 elephant centre, which is adjacent to the panda enclosure.