BERLIN - On Wednesday morning, at Berlin Zoo, Bao Bao the giant panda died in his sleep at the age of 34 -- which for a panda is a ripe old age. Berlin mourns him, the zoo mourns him … but all the attention will quickly fade away. The truth is that Bao Bao’s story ended a long time ago. And it’s a sad one.
When Bao Bao came to Berlin at the age of two, the world was a different place. West Germany’s capital was Bonn, Helmut Schmidt was Chancellor, and Hua Guofeng, Mao’s direct successor, was leader of China. Hua presented Schmidt with Bao Bao and a female panda named Tian Tian as official state gifts. Of all the principals in this scene, only Helmut Schmidt is still alive.
Yet as time wore on, even though Bao Bao stayed alive, he was already a thing of the past, custodian of a hope that remained unfulfilled.
In his last years, he had become progressively thinner. Keeping their weight up is in any case something of a challenge for giant pandas. Although they are carnivores, their food consists mostly of bamboo, which is poor in nutrients. Pandas’ digestive systems are not as perfectly adapted to raw plant food as those of ruminants and they have to eat huge quantities to keep their metabolism going. This means that pandas don’t have a lot of time to do much else but eat.
The story of Bao Bao must also be seen in the following context: this type of bear with very little capacity to adapt to changing circumstances found itself in a dangerous situation—mostly because of the destruction of its habitat by farming and deforestation -- that it would not have been in a position to survive without human intervention.
China, eager for business with the capitalist world, put the last remaining panda habitats under protection; its care for the adorable species being a way of diverting the attention of its future economic partners away from some of the less than praiseworthy activities of the Cultural Revolution.
Anyway, the German Federal Republic happily accepted the two pandas and installed them in what was then West Berlin, Germany’s showcase, so that everybody could see the rich fruits the then nascent Sino-German collaboration would bear (no pun intended).
Except -- there were no rich fruits.
And herein lies the seed of Bao Bao’s tragic story, even as his first years in Germany took on the character of something out of popular theater. At the time the big question was “Did they or didn’t they?” – i.e. have Bao Bao and Tian Tian mated yet – and it brought previously unheard of numbers of visitors to Berlin Zoo where the two young bears and their antics singlehandedly created the image in the public mind of what pandas are all about. Tian Tian reached puberty in 1981, but Bao Bao didn’t and showed no sexual interest in her. The two started fighting and had to be separated.
Tian Tian died of an infection in 1984, but the hope of panda offspring didn’t die with her. Bao Bao was sent to London to procreate – but instead bit one of his intended partner’s ears off. Back in Berlin, it was hoped he would mate with Yan Yan, a female panda on loan from China for just this purpose. But again he wasn’t interested, and even electro-ejaculation for him and hormone treatments for her did not produce the desired results (although Yan Yan did take to masturbating with bamboo stalks).
Yan Yan died in 2007 without having produced offspring. Bao Bao was the only one left, and it has to be said he was still quite famous and maybe his wasn’t the worst fate for an old, lonely panda. Nobody knows if he realized that he had been supplanted in the cuteness sweepstakes by Knut, the baby polar bear born at Berlin Zoo. Not only was Knut super cute, he was a powerful symbol of the melting ice wrought by climate change in his natural habitat – and that potent combination melted away the last of the panda mystique.
Bao Bao not only lost muscle mass, which is to be expected in an old bear – he lost his aura.