The panda is a creature that is universally recognisable: that fluffy fur, the kohl eyes, the black-and-white simplicity. Caricatured as fussy eaters and sexual failures, pandas need saving, right? And we humans pride ourselves on having tried hard to save them. After all, the panda is now a symbol for conservation, imaginatively and literally: it's immortalised as the logo of the World Wildlife Fund.
But in reality, we still don't really know the panda. It's a wild creature, not a teddy bear. Those sneezing on YouTube or cartooned on a pencil case are very far from the beasts in the forests of China. The panda is pretty elusive – we don't even have a reasonable estimate of how many exist in the wild.
Henry Nicholls, author of a new book called The Way of the Panda, which explores the history of the creature, sees a vast difference between the symbolic panda and the actual animal. "They've been abstracted to such a degree, we're often not talking about 'real' pandas any more. We think we know this species, but we really don't."
The panda had a remarkably quick rise to fame. The first scientific description of a panda doesn't appear until 1869, when Armand David, a French priest and naturalist, catches a glimpse of a "a most excellent black-and-white bear".
By the 1930s, pandas had been successfully transported to Western zoos, where they quickly became star attractions. Su-Lin – captured by fashion designer-turned-panda-hunter Ruth Harkness – had more than 53,000 visitors on its first day at Brookfield Zoo in Chicago in 1936.
But it was the 1960s that saw the panda become a potent symbol. In China, it emerged as both a 'national treasure' and a political image. "Because it wasn't known until 1869, the panda had no visual associations with China's imperial past, which was important for the communists who wanted a forward-looking China," says Nicholls.
In the West, the panda became the defining image of the growing conservation movement. In 1961 it was chosen for the WWF symbol, because, as Nicholls explains: "It looks great, it's endangered, and prints well in black and white. It might seem like a small thing, but how would the panda be seen across the world without that choice?"
That the panda became both poster bear for conservation world-wide, and politically crucial within China, certainly helped ensure the animal's survival. "China takes pandas incredibly seriously – they get the vast majority of conservation money. And China has made bold choices to help pandas, like its logging ban in 1998. That put a lot of people out of work; it was a big decision."
Perhaps it's only fair that this animal should help prompt some of the greatest environmental initiatives ever undertaken; after all, it is almost entirely because of humans that pandas are endangered at all, thanks to our destruction of their natural habitat and food sources.
While the popular perception is that pandas are an evolutionary dead end, that somehow they deserve extinction for being so fussy, Nicholls points out that their diet is actually pretty smart – and certainly wouldn't be problematic if we'd left their food sources alone. "The idea that eating just bamboo is silly is just nonsense. There are lots of species that are specialised, and actually pandas are exquisitely adapted to eat this food. Bamboo was everywhere before humans, and grows incredibly quickly. I don't see why hunting for your prey is seen as better than sitting on your bottom and munching all day."
He also attempts to dispel another myth: that pandas are woefully unsexy animals. "The reproductive stereotype is down to us putting them into a strange environment," says Nicholls of the famously failed attempts to get pandas to mate in captivity. "Pandas just pack it all into a tiny window of one or two days – they are very good at it." In the wild, the female panda makes the most of her brief fertile period, often mating with more than one male. A WWF study tracking one panda in heat found a female panda mated more than 40 times with the dominant male – not bad for one night.
Pandas should be able to do fine without us. According to Nicholls, conserving our favourite monochrome bear is "all about habitat and keeping humans out of the way". But while their cute appearance and slightly comic personae may be deceptive, their popular appeal has raised their profile. "They are unbelievably successful as a conservation symbol," insists Nicholls. "There'll still be pandas around in 100 years."
'The Way of the Panda' is published by Profile Books (£15.99). To order a copy for the special price of £13.99 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk