The ballroom at the Intercontinental Hotel is full of pandas.
Or rather one giant panda. She’s on the wall, the banners, brochures. She’s on T-shirts, pamphlets and the projector. She’s right there as a statue holding a baby. She’s on lanyards and staff uniforms. She’s on the little statuettes and flash disks inside the gift hamper. She’s everywhere.
Her name was Chi-Chi, and this is her story, and the story of the organisation that immortalised her.
A few weeks ago, the local office for World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) became WWF-Kenya, a fully-fledged local NGO. The transition was the latest step in what has been a five-decade whirlwind of a journey through the conservation world.
When WWF was founded, in 1961, the topmost problem for the few conservation organisations that existed then was fundraising. Conservation is an intensive activity that requires massive resources. Without solid financial backing, most conservation efforts, private and public, would falter. So in May 1961, 16 of the then leading conservationists in the world teamed up to sign the Morges Manifesto, and form a single fundraising international NGO.
World Wide Fund for Nature was established that year as World Wildlife Fund. That remained its name until 1986 when it switched to its current name, although the original one is still used in Canada and the United States.
On 11th September 1961, WWF opened its first office in Morges, Switzerland. It opened its Kenyan office the next year, primarily focused on protecting the elephant and the black rhino. At the time, the organisation’s entire focus was on the protection of endangered species. Within its first year, WWF doled out $33, 500 for five projects.
Chi Chi was born sometime in September 1954 in the wild forests of Sichuan, in Southwest China. Had it not been for her capture in May 1955, Chi Chi would probably have lived a short, nondescript life. By then, however, the giant panda was already an incredibly rare and endangered species. It would become the symbol of conservation efforts, and a much-sought after animal for zoos around the world. In a decade, China, the native home of the panda, would embark on what became known as “panda diplomacy”; giving away pandas to other countries temporarily, and for a fee.
After she was captured, Chi Chi was moved to Beijing Zoo. Two years later, she was moved to Moscow Zoo with another panda. Her Russian zookeepers returned her to Beijing in January 1958 after unsuccessful attempts to mate her with the other panda (Pandas have a surprisingly low birth rate-which is one of the reasons why they are so rare). She returned to Moscow four months later, this time enroute to Brookfield Zoo in Chicago after she was exchanged for several African big game by an Austrian animal dealer called Heini Demmer.
US authorities said that the existing trade embargo on China covered even pandas, so Chi Chi held the dubious distinction of being one of the few animals to be denied entry into a country for political and trade reasons.
Chi Chi then embarked on something of cross-Europe run that ended a few short months later, at London Zoo. Her original three-week visit ended with the decision to permanently house her in London, marking the first of her decade and a half-life at the zoo. By 1961, Chi Chi was the star attraction in London and served as the inspiration for ornithologist Sir Peter Scott’s suggested logo for WWF.
As WWF grew in stature after its 1961 founding, it expanded its focus areas and presence beyond endangered species. In the last 55 years, the international NGO has grown to cover over 100 countries and more than 1, 300 conservation projects. WWF now does many things other than species conservation: water resource management, renewable energy and climate change, forest resource management, marine turtles program.
In 1973, WWF bought and donated 37, 000 acres next to Lake Nakuru, allowing the government to expand the national park to its current boundaries. Lake Nakuru National Park, established the same year as WWF, is a fragile ecosystem that supports 30 bird species and many animal species. The lake forms the core of the ecosystem, and it had already suffered in the years before its gazettment as a park. It has, for example, dried about four times in recorded history, placing the ecosystem it supports in existential peril. Expanding the park limited human settlement in the areas around the lake, further protecting the fragile ecosystem. In the 1990s, WWF also funded the foundation of the Coastal Forest Conservation Unit to protect the 43 monuments in Kilifi and Kwale listed as monuments.
WWF is still busy in its original focus area, the protection of the endangered species. In 1999, for example, the conservation group piloted a project in Transmara to reduce human-elephant conflict. The conflict had, as at 1997, reduced the number of elephants in the area to a measly 250. The elephant population has since grown to 594, with reduced incidences of human-wildlife conflict. One of its recent research projects built an economic case for elephant conservation. The report, titled Estimating economic losses to tourism in Africa from the illegal killing of elephants (PDF] found that the tourism losses are often greater than what it would cost to fund anti poaching activities. Elephant poaching currently costs African countries a total of $25 million per year.
WWF uses 85 percent of its funding on program expenses, leaving 10 percent for fundraising activities and 5 percent for finance and administration. Most of the program expenses money is spread out across its focus areas. In Kenya, for example, WWF-Kenya financially supports about 80 percent of KWS’s rhino conservation efforts. The black rhino is an endangered species primarily poached for its horn. There was an estimated population of 20, 000 rhino in 1970, which reduced precariously to 350 by 1983 after a decade of unchecked poaching.
There’s also that nagging question about the other WWF, the World Wrestling Federation. While this piece is not about that, the two stories are interconnected. Both the conservation group and the wrestling company shared the initials “WWF” from 1979 until 2001 when the latter moved to “WWE” in 2002.
Chi Chi died on 22nd July, 1972.
The current WWF logo is different from the original one designed in 1961 by Peter Scott. It was altered in a few ways in 1986 as the conservation organisation moved to rename itself to match its new focus areas. Chi Chi remains its big, cuddly, black and white global inspiration.
“We shan’t save all we should like to, but we shall save a great deal more than if we had never tried.” –Peter Scott
One story is good,
till Another is told.