August 11, 2009

China Celebrates Giant Pandas

China is set to retrace the journey of Pere Jean Pierre Armand David, the French Catholic missionary who made giant pandas known to the West. The move will commemorate the 140th anniversary of the bears' discovery by the outside world, according to a state media report by the Xinhua news agency on Tuesday.

The giant black and white bears were virtually unheard of outside China until 1869, when Pere David described one the had been shot by hunters in Ya'an, Sichuan province.  The tale spurred a hundred years of relentless fascination with the pandas. 

Enthusiasts will be permitted to join the 220-mile hike from the Sichuan capital Chengdu to Ya'an, which will retrace the footsteps of the French naturalist and help educate people about the endangered animals and their protection, said Ya'an tourism official Li Yamei.

The trek will commence on August 15 and is expected to conclude at the giant panda research center in Ya'an on August 25.  The pandas were temporarily relocated there while a new breeding center is being constructed after last year's powerful Sichuan earthquake destroyed the main Wolong research center, Xinhua said.

Part of the anniversary celebration in Ya'an will include a festival that opens August 19 of more than 40 films about pandas and other wildlife.

There are roughly 1,590 pandas living in the wild throughout China,  mostly in Sichuan and the northern Shaanxi and northwestern Gansu provinces.   An additional 180 pandas have being bred in captivity, Xinhua said.

In addition to introducing the giant panda to the outside world, Pere David also found the deer species that was later named after him. The deer exists now only in captivity.