Many years ago in graduate school I got a grant to study golden monkeys in China, rare primates living in the same area as the iconic pandas. I chose instead to accept a Fulbright for research on West African monkeys, and never got to China. But I really love pandas, and on a recent trip to Washington D.C. I visited them at the National Zoo.
Pandas first came to the Smithsonian in 1972. The current pair has been living there since 2000, and will remain until 2020. Two of their cubs have already been sent back to China to join the breeding program there, including one earlier this year. Fewer than 2000 giant pandas remain in the wild, with another 300 in captive breeding programs around the world. It is vitally important to increase the population, and zoo pandas also act as ambassadors for this incredibly endangered and almost un-panda-bearably cute species.
Bei Bei, the youngest panda at the zoo, is nearly two years old. He really enjoys climbing trees. He is a bit rough on them, breaking off branches with his exuberant explorations. This is somewhat upsetting to the horticulturists responsible for keeping the zoo flora healthy. But Bei Bei seems unconcerned, spending much of his free time sliding down and falling off the trees. He may lack the svelte grace we have come to know from Chinese gymnasts, but what he may lose in style points he more than makes up for in enthusiasm. If there were animal Olympics he would definitely be a contender, especially if medals were given for effort. Then he would definitely take home the gold!