Rear Window: A rare breed: When five giant pandas disembarked at Tilbury

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The Independent Online
SOME time in the next few weeks, Ming Ming the giant panda will be flown out of Britain to China. To the disappointment of staff at London Zoo, where she has been on loan for three years, she has not produced a cub here.

Ming Ming, zoo officials concede, will probably be the last giant panda ever to be seen in Britain. That the Chinese agreed to lend her was the cause of some surprise, and that generosity is unlikely to be repeated. The species is close to extinction, with perhaps as few as 1,000 surviving in the wild in a desperately depleted habitat.

When the first pandas came to Britain, 56 years ago, China had little say in the matter.

It happened on 23 December 1938, when the SS Antenor docked at Tilbury, east of London, to deliver no fewer than five giant pandas. They had been captured in the Chinese province of Sichuan by an American adventurer and big game hunter called Tangier Smith.

Smith had originally trapped six animals, using sugar cubes as bait, and then transported them by lorry more than 1,200 miles to Hong Kong, across a China already at war. Twice the convoy was fired on by Japanese fighter planes. The pandas were kept in crates, but Smith insisted that every evening they should be exercised, on leads. The young Zhou En Lai, a future Chinese prime minister, witnessed this spectacle and is said to have described the whole enterprise as 'six panda madness'.

After a short rest in a Hong Kong dog's home, the animals endured five weeks at sea, delighting the captain with an exercise regime that included a strict 100 circuits of the deck each day. 'Oh, what a sight]' he wrote. 'In all my years of seagoing there was never a voyage like it.' One panda died in transit, apparently of seasickness. The others were lucky to survive, for towards the end their rations of roughage were running so low that they began to chew the timbers of their cages.

Upon their delivery to Britain, London Zoo paid Smith pounds 4,000 for three cubs, named Ming, Tang and Sung. For the other two, Smith struck a contract with a German firm of animal dealers to exhibit them and transport them to the US for sale there.

These were not the first pandas in the West, for Smith had been narrowly beaten by a wealthy American, Ruth Harkness, who cheekily bought one from one of Smith's trappers in China and smuggled it to the US in 1937. They were, however, Europe's first and there was such a clamour to see these 'amusing bear-like animals' that the zoo shortened the quarantine period to put them on display early in January 1939. They did not live long. One of the exhibit animals died within two weeks of arrival and by mid-1940 only two of Smith's original six survived, one in London and one in St Louis. Ming died in London in 1944.

It was, all told, a sorry debut for this popular animal, but Smith was not quite such a brute as the story suggests, at least by the standards of his time. His predecessors had been happy to shoot pandas - as Theodore Roosevelt's sons, Theodore II and Kermit, had done amid much publicity in 1929 - but Smith appears to have been genuinely attached to the animals and concerned for their welfare.

And the terms of his contract with the German dealers have a modern ring: they promised 'to exhibit them to the best advantage and under the most suitable conditions' and 'to use the animals . . . for the furtherance of the knowledge of these animals to the benefit of science and the general public'.

The era of panda-trapping was mercifully brief. By the time peace returned to China after Mao Tse Tung's communists took over in 1949, the plight of the giant panda was recognised, and hunting was forbidden.

London received, as gifts, Chi-Chi in 1958, and Chia-Chia and Ching-Ching in 1973 and 1974. Famously, they never bred. Then in 1991 came the unexpected loan of Ming Ming. Bao-Bao, a male from Berlin zoo, joined her for a time but they did not mate. The date of her return to Chengdu, in Sichuan, has not yet been fixed.

(Photographs omitted)