National Geographic News
Black and white 1936 photo of Ruth Harkness cuddling Su-Lin, the first live giant panda to reach the west.

The first panda in the U.S. was brought from China by Ruth Harkess, pictured above cradling panda cub Su-Lin.

Photograph by Lotte Jacobi  

Johnna Rizzo

National Geographic News

Published April 18, 2013

Giant panda watchers are waiting expectantly—for the next three to five months. On March 30 the National Zoo's Mei Xiang was inseminated twice.

Eighty years ago the first baby giant panda to arrive in the United States came through a very different avenue. The photo of this baby panda (above), by Lotte Jacobi, was published in "Secrets of the Wild Panda" by George B. Schaller in the March 1986 issue of National Geographic.

"Making an American debut in 1936," reads the photo's caption, "the first live panda to reach the West arrived in the arms of Ruth Harkness, who brought it from China's Sichuan Province. Chicago's zoo acquired the cub the following year. Named Su-Lin, it launched the present-day panda mania."

There are about 1,600 giant pandas left in the wild, according to the last census in 2004. In addition, more than 300 live in zoos and at breeding centers, mostly in China. Today there are 12 giant pandas in U.S. zoos—four at Zoo Atlanta, four at the San Diego Zoo, two at the Memphis Zoo, and two at the Smithsonian's National Zoo.

Harkness was a socialite and clothing designer. When her wealthy husband died while in Tibet looking for a giant panda to bring back to the U.S., Ruth flew over for the funeral and decided to finish the expedition herself. In just a few months, she'd succeeded.

The Brookfield Zoo in Chicago bought the panda cub for just under $9,000 and Su-Lin—which translates to "a little bit of something very cute"—attracted more visitors than any other animal ever. Su-Lin died a year later.

It's a distressing finale to Su-Lin's story, but not a surprising one. Panda cubs continue to have a low survival rate in zoo environments, and adult females have difficulty conceiving at all. Female pandas have a window of only 12 to 24 hours a year to become pregnant. (Watch a video: "Love" for Pandas?)

The National Zoo's Tai Shan, born in 2005 to Mei Xiang, was a rare breeding success for U.S. zoos. Last year Mei Xiang's second cub died just a week after it was born.

A successful birth doesn't guarantee that the panda population in U.S. zoos will rise to 13, though. Pandas living in the United States are the property of China—technically giant pandas are leased to the U.S. zoos that house them, with the revenue from the lease funneled into panda conservation efforts—and China can request the return of any offspring after the age of two. (See also: China's Giant Panda Reserve)

The National Zoo returned Tai Shan in 2010.

Peace Seeker
Peace Seeker

The most recent Chinese survey estimates there are 1,590 giant pandas in the wild, while wildlife biologists estimate between 1,000 and 2,000. China has made great progress in preserving and multiplying the population of the species in recent years.


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