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Fanimal Kingdom

Fans of giant pandas are an influential online force that has helped raise public awareness for the species. But their obsessive attention is showing its claws

By Ji Anbing Updated Sept.1

It was a drizzly morning on July 4, 2023. Hundreds of visitors – men and women, old and young, waited in line at Beijing Zoo, clutching their umbrellas. They were there to celebrate Meng Lan’s 8th birthday. Most of them had waited over four hours just to catch a glimpse of the beloved panda.  

Meng Lan is not only the zoo’s most popular animal, but one of China’s most famous pandas. He went viral on December 15, 2021, when video showed him scaling a two-meter-tall wall and escaping his enclosure, coming in near contact with visitors.  

That same day, thousands of miles away at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, Meng Lan’s sister and brother – twins He Hua and He Ye – celebrated their 3rd birthday. By 6:30am, there were already around 1,000 visitors waiting to view the pair. Some had camped out overnight.  

Livestreams are now bringing people closer to giant pandas than ever before, with every detail of their lives broadcast 24 hours a day. And fans still cannot get enough.  

Some giant pandas in captivity are bona fide online celebrities, complete with organized fan clubs. This growing fan base has boosted revenues for giant panda institutes, helps supervise their feeding and daily care, and raises public awareness of animal protection.  

However, their intense adulation is also becoming a chore for institutes. 

Live from Chengdu 
The recent wave of giant panda celebrity began with iPanda.  

Launched by China Network Television (CNTV) in 2013, iPanda is a round-the-clock livestream from the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. In February 2017, an iPanda video became an internet meme which drew worldwide attention to the livestream.  

The 57-second clip shows cub Qi Yi clinging to his keeper’s leg and following him everywhere he goes. The video has 1.1 billion views, and helped iPanda rack up its current 53 million followers, Guo Yanan, deputy director of iPanda, told NewsChina.  

Liu Ling is among them. Living in Chengdu, Liu visits the panda base often. She said panda fandom has changed greatly over the last decade.  

She started following iPanda in 2013. “The livecast allows people to watch pandas from many angles that can’t be seen otherwise,” Liu said. Liking what she saw, Liu made frequent trips to the panda base. “At the time, fans at the base were way less crazed than they are today,” she said.  

Liu regularly posts her photos and videos from the base on social media, which has garnered lots of followers. She is a member of online fan clubs and follows “Super Topic” pages on Sina Weibo dedicated to individual pandas. A survey conducted by online news outlet The Paper in 2019 showed that roughly 400 out of the total of 600 captive pandas in China have their own Super Topic page. Every day, fans log in to share photos, videos and fan art of their favorite pandas.  

Liu found many of the clubs are well organized and delegate duties to members. Some edit photos or videos, manage online presence, and even handle feuds with other fan clubs.  

“Core members are supposed to complete their duties every day – they are either required to post a certain number of high-definition photos or share edited video on a daily basis,” she told NewsChina.  

Giant panda fandom is quickly resembling those of pop idols. Fans spend enormous amounts of time and money to promote their panda. Some rent LED billboards in Times Square, crowdfund feed and toy purchases, and hold offline events.  

These events are getting bigger and becoming more frequent, Liu said. In the past, each crowdfunded event charged fans around 10 yuan (US$1.3). They now average 500 yuan (US$69). 

Visitors video giant panda Meng Lan, Beijing Zoo, April 28, 2023 (Photos by VCG)

Twin giant pandas He Hua (left) and He Ye eat their birthday cake, Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, July 4, 2023 (Photos by VCG)

Panda keepers line up 23 panda cubs, all born in 2016, for a group appearance at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, September 29, 2016 (Photos by VCG)

Qizai, the world’s only captive brown giant panda, Qinling Sibao Science Park (Photo by Yaya)

Catch the Keepers 
Dong Qiwen, a history professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, has closely observed panda fan communities since 2017. He said that fans are increasingly taking their influence offline, and it is having negative effects.  

“Essentially speaking, as the giant pandas they love are real, the love and care of these fans overflows from cyber space to social spaces. The relationships between fans and giant panda institutes and zoos is becoming strained,” Dong said.  

Dong observed that many fans have developed their general fondness and interest into something deeply emotional. Some form a virtual “parent-child” relationship with their particular panda.  

“When fans start to treat pandas as their virtual sons and daughters, they view zoos and conservation institutes very much like schools. If a school is suspected of violating students’ rights, parents will certainly complain and protest. ‘Panda moms,’ in a similar way, would accuse the zoo of abusing giant pandas if they believe the zoo has shown some signs of negligence or mistreatment,” Dong told NewsChina.  

This scrutiny extends to panda keepers. Known as nai bama (nanny dads and moms) in fan communities, those who interact with fans more are usually deemed caring and responsible, while those less so are labeled as cold and indifferent – even potential abusers.  

Some keepers become victims of bullying both on and offline. Many giant panda institutes require that keepers never respond, no matter how severe the verbal attacks are.  

In April, a video showing a keeper at Nanjing Ziqinghu Wildlife Park prodding panda Nuan Nuan with a bamboo pole to hurry her to her shelter went viral on social media. Fans lambasted both the keeper and park, slinging accusations of animal abuse. The keeper was subjected to cyber violence. On April 17, the park made a public apology, saying the keeper was no longer allowed to work with its pandas.  

After having watched the video, a zoo manager who spoke with NewsChina on condition of anonymity said the keeper had done nothing wrong and the punishment he suffered, meted out under the pressure of public opinion, was unfair.  

“Almost all giant panda institutes in China face verbal attacks from fans of varying degrees,” the manager said.  

Conflict intensifies when fans discover that institutes had failed to notice a panda’s health issue in time or when they suspect it is not receiving proper treatment. 
Two years on, a fiasco surrounding giant panda Ya Ya has still not abated. Sent to the US in 2003 with her male companion Le Le, the 22-year-old panda spent two decades at Memphis Zoo in Tennessee. In 2021, Ya Ya appeared thin with patches of pinkish, raw skin. Netizens accused the zoo of abuse. In a released statement, the zoo said Ya Ya has a chronic skin and fur condition, which “occasionally made her fur look thin and patchy.”  

In February, Le Le died of heart disease at 25, further fueling anger among giant panda fans in China. The life span of giant pandas is 14-20 years in the wild and up to 30 in captivity, according to the WWF.  

On April 27, Ya Ya bid farewell to the US for China after the end of the 20-year loan agreement. Now some Chinese are calling for the return of three-year old panda cub Xiao Qi Ji and his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, DC, accusing the zoo of mistreatment.  

In contrast, when Samsung-sponsored Panda World in South Korea announced it would be returning three-year-old cub Fu Bao to China, many Chinese fans called for the contract’s renewal, saying the keepers have made Fu Bao “the happiest panda in the world.” Meng Lan’s “nanny dads” are also praised for their “loving hearts.”  

What troubles Liu Ling most is the infighting between fan clubs. Supporters quarrel over trivialities – comparing their favorites in everything from appearance and cuteness to online popularity and what foods they eat.  

“Fans nowadays are increasingly hot tempered. The online communities are like powder kegs – a little spark could set them off at any moment,” Liu said.  

“Some more extreme fans believe their cubs should get the most bamboo shoots, have the most toys and receive the best care. They think their cubs should eat food at a fixed time. If their [favorite] panda ate apples at 9am yesterday but not today, they take it as a sign of mistreatment,” the anonymous zoo manager said.  

“But in order to equip pandas with better survival skills for the wild, the amount and types of food and feeding times can’t be fixed. Otherwise, pandas can easily develop rigid habits. But many fans don’t believe this. They think these are excuses,” the zoo manager said.  

Dong Qiwen said panda institutes and professionals, which had focused solely on science and research in the past, are largely unequipped to deal with a potentially volatile public. “Nowadays, what troubles institutes most is the problem of people – humans are always much more difficult to deal with than pandas. Coping with the problem of extreme fans has become a tough public relations issue that every giant panda institute faces,” Dong told NewsChina. 

Visitors crowd a panda enclosure, Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, Southwest China’s Sichuan Province (Photo by Zhou Mengqi)

A video billboard of a giant panda plays over a bustling street, Chengdu, Sichuan Province, October 9, 2021 (Photos by VCG)

Visitors shop for panda souvenirs, Beijing Zoo, May 29, 2023 (Photos by VCG)

Wild Ideas 
Decades of preservation efforts have saved the giant panda species from extinction. In October 2021, the National Forestry and Grassland Administration of China announced the number of giant pandas in captivity around the globe reached 673 by October 1 that year, compared to 300 in 2011.  

The same year, the wild panda population reached 1,864, compared to 1,114 four decades earlier, according to white paper titled Biodiversity Conservation in China issued by the State Council Information Office in October 2021.  

Scientists encourage fans to pay more attention to wild giant pandas and the conservation of their natural habitats rather than loving pandas like pets.  

“When we talk about giant panda conservation, scientists are actually emphasizing the conservation of the whole ecosystem they rely on instead of merely focusing on the animals themselves,” Hou Rong, deputy director of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, told NewsChina.  

She said habitat fragmentation is the biggest threat wild pandas face. “It’s absolutely necessary to enhance the connectivity of the giant pandas’ natural habitats. Their habitats do not exist in isolation. They are inextricably linked to changes in the surrounding environment,” she said.  

Wild pandas are scattered across more than 30 habitats fragmented by infrastructure and human activity such as highways, railways, farms and villages.  

Such island-like distributions could result in inbreeding, which increases the probability of infectious diseases and loss of genetic diversity.  

In an interview with China National Radio, Wang Fang, a giant panda expert at Fudan University, said that China has 67 panda reserves with a total area of nearly 3.36 million hectares, covering 53.8 percent of giant panda habitats and protecting 66.8 percent of the wild giant panda population.  

“Creating natural reserves is the first step. The second step is to connect these reserves and create national parks and corridors to allow them safe passage through areas of human activity. More consistent and safer habitats may be formed if we can link these isolated islands,” Wang said.  

Some on social media agree. “It’s necessary [for fans] to direct some of their energy and passion to giant pandas in the wild and to the diligent wildlife conservationists working under harsh conditions for little pay,” Sina Weibo user “Datutu Erduo” posted on June 11.  

“If seen in the wild just as they are, you may find them even more charming. That’s their most natural and free state. You’ll respect them even more. You’ll respect them as you respect life, instead of loving them like pets,” the post read.