We're going on a panda hunt.
In 1920, when Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt, the first white men to kill a panda, went on their hunt, they brought rifles, shotguns, and 38-millimeter automatics in armpit holsters --but we're bringing foil-wrapped gifts, artists' renderings, and a camcorder. The Roosevelt brothers dreamt of shooting the elusive black and white bear and bringing its hide to the Smithsonian, but Oakland's delegation hopes to lease a breeding pair of pandas who would be housed, studied, and exhibited at the Oakland Zoo. While the Roosevelts gathered a team of animal trappers, porters, and personal retainers, this group includes City Manager Robert Bobb, City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, Oakland Zoo Director Joel Parrott, and a mix of city deal-makers, consultants, and legal advisors. And while that 1920 expedition trekked overland from Bombay to Yunan, our itinerary will take us by plane to the northern port town Dalian, to central government offices in Beijing, and finally to Chengdu, the seat of the Sichuan provincial government and the base for expeditions to the high bamboo forests that most of the world's few remaining pandas call home.
Why the complicated itinerary? Because in the 21st century, a panda hunt has as much to do with politics and global trade as it does with scientific research and conservation. "The most important part of this whole trip is to establish better cultural exchange and friendship through the pursuit of two pandas," says Oakland Councilmember Henry Chang. "If you come and talk to the government and work with them to preserve the small population of pandas, they become very, very happy that you are trying to help them, and they usually open up their arms to also work with you about economic development, which is what we have done."
Chang is the delegation's fearless, dedicated, visionary--some might say obsessed--leader. The panda project is his baby; he initiated talks in China two years ago, won a letter of intent from the Wildlife Conservation Association, and called in old friendships with top-ranking Chinese officials to further the process.
He has a wealth of friendships to call upon. Born in China to a wealthy family, he spent years in prison during the Japanese occupation and later escaped to Hong Kong. His wife's father was a national hero; the Communist Party honored him with a formal state funeral last year. Chang went on to study architecture at UC Berkeley and founded an urban design and development firm, working on projects in Oakland and in China.
Henry Chang looks--and acts--much younger than his 67 years: his Web page bio features quirky photos of a young Henry performing magic tricks, and a more recent shot of the man with his dog, and this sense of offbeat fun pervades his demeanor still. In the weeks leading up to the trip, he gleefully warns me that I'd better find someone to be my "designated drinker" unless I want to end up in a drinking contest with our Chinese hosts. "And don't look at me!" he quips.
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