Published: 15:10, January 28, 2024 | Updated: 17:12, January 28, 2024
Giant pandas bear witness to friendship between China, France
By Xinhua

This file photo taken on July 22, 2016 shows the Dengchigou Catholic Church in Baoxing county, Ya'an, Sichuan province, China. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

CHENGDU - Blending the architectural traits of western Sichuan province in southwest China with Gothic architecture, a church is nestled amidst the remote mountains of Baoxing county.

Some 155 years ago, Pierre Armand David, a French Catholic priest, zoologist and botanist, resided in the Dengchigou Catholic Church for some time. During his stay in Baoxing in the city of Ya'an, he came across a black and white fur, which was found to belong to a species totally new to science -- the giant panda.

Since then, the world has experienced great transformations, but people's love for giant pandas has remained unchanged. Giant pandas have played the role of "ambassadors", fostering a bridge of friendship between China and France.

Discovery that ties people together

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between these two countries.

In 1869, David, born in France's Espelette, traveled to the church where he resided for over eight months.

READ MORE: France bids farewell to giant panda

He collected many plant seeds with the help of local villagers and saw a black and white animal skin in a villager's home, which he thought was "very peculiar". David hired hunters to scout the mountains of Baoxing and finally found a live "black and white bear".

David then attempted to send it to Paris, however, it died on the way. Then, he sent it as a specimen to the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. There, a zoologist examined its skin and skeleton and later declared it a new species which was subsequently named the "giant panda".

Giant panda Yuan Meng enjoys food at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China, Jan 17, 2024. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

China and France have worked together in the realm of environmental conservation to ensure a better future for humanity

Since the founding of New China in 1949, China began presenting giant pandas as "goodwill ambassadors" to friendly countries.

In 1964, China and France established diplomatic ties. In mid-September 1973, then French president Georges Pompidou visited China. During the exchange of gifts, the Chinese government gave a pair of giant pandas, Li Li and Yen Yen, to France.

READ MORE: Home set for French-born panda

In 2000, 100 years after the passing away of David, a group of special guests from his hometown, Espelette, came to Baoxing. The delegation was led by Andre Darraidou, a former mayor of Espelette.

In 2002, Sun Qian, then vice-mayor of Ya'an, led a team to visit David's hometown. In the same year, Baoxing and Espelette officially became "sister cities".

Thereafter, Espelette has engaged in regular exchanges with Ya'an, thanks to the pandas. Darraidou had led teams to Ya'an several times to explore giant panda culture. And Ya'an reciprocated by leading teams to Espelette for return visits.

In 2014, on the occasion of the 145th anniversary of the discovery of the giant panda, Luo Weixiao, a retired worker from Ya'an, set off from Baoxing and rode a bicycle to France, with a picture of a giant panda hanging on the front of his bike, and his luggage spray-painted with panda patterns.

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After a ride of 115 days covering 15,000 km, he arrived in David's hometown. "The journey is to let people know that the people of the homeland of giant pandas have always cared about their French friends," Luo had said.

From Oct 10 to 13, 2023, more than 20 people from Espelette visited Ya'an.

People bid farewell to giant panda Yuan Meng (in the van) in front of the Beauval Zoo in Saint-Aignan, France, July 25, 2023. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Joining hands for pandas, humanity

Since 1985, China has stopped gifting giant pandas to any other country, and pandas are only sent abroad through lease contracts.

In 2012, Huan Huan and Yuan Zi, born at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, arrived in France's Beauval Zoo on a 10-year loan from China.

In 2017, they gave birth to Yuan Meng, marking the first birth of a giant panda in France. Yuan Meng's twin sisters were also born at the zoo.

Every year, thousands of French people flock to the zoo to celebrate the birthday of Yuan Meng and his family, with some preparing cakes and posters.

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Generally, giant panda cubs born overseas return to China before the age of four to avoid inbreeding. As a result, in July 2023, Yuan Meng arrived at the Chengdu base after a long-haul flight.

French President Emmanuel Macron (second right) reacts with the panda cub Yuan Meng at Beauval zoo in Saint-Aignan, central France, on Dec 16, 2017. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Brigitte Macron, wife of French President Emmanuel Macron, saw the panda off at the airport. "I'm going to visit him. I'm sure he'll be very happy in his country, but he won't forget France," she said, noting that Yuan Meng represents an "absolutely unbreakable friendship" between the two countries.

Duan Lihong, a panda breeder at the Chengdu base, said that Yuan Meng is very active and eats a lot and it has fully adapted to life in China.

According to the National Forestry and Grassland Administration, China currently has more than 50 giant pandas living around the world, with four living in France.

Li Sheng, a researcher at the School of Life Sciences, Peking University, said that over the past two to three decades, joint efforts involving the government, scientists and the international community, among others, have successfully reversed the declining trend of the wild habitat area and the wild population of giant pandas, leading to a significant recovery.

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Li added that in 2016, the threatened status of giant pandas was downgraded from "endangered" to "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which was a landmark event that highlighted the remarkable results achieved in the protection of endangered wildlife.

This photo taken on July 24, 2023 shows giant panda Yuan Meng at Beauval Zoo in Saint-Aignan, France. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

In 2021, China established the Giant Panda National Park, covering about 27,000 square km across three provinces -- Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu. Currently, the population of giant pandas in the wild in China is around 1,900, rising from about 1,100 in the 1980s, the administration said Thursday.

China and France have also worked together in the realm of environmental conservation to ensure a better future for humanity.

READ MORE: Xi marks 60th anniversary of China-France diplomatic ties

China and France were among the first batch of signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity. In 2019, the two countries jointly issued the Beijing Call for Biodiversity Conservation and Climate Change.