A Digital Curiosity Cabinet

Archive for July, 2014

Chi Chi, the Naughty Panda

Chi Chi the Panda, © The Natural History Museum, London

Chi Chi the Panda, © The Natural History Museum, London

This innocuous panda quietly munching on some bamboo leaves inspired the internationally recognized logo of the World Wildlife Fund. Sir Peter Scott, one of the founders of the WWF suggested that the cute cuddly bears would be a big hit with the public. The panda was named Chi Chi, which means ‘naughty looking girl’, unless it is mispronounced. If you say Chi Chi in the wrong Chinese tone of voice, it means prostitute. Chi Chi was certainly no whore. She was not in the slightest bit interested in breeding. There were several unsuccessful attempts to mate her with An-An a male panda at Moscow Zoo. Apparently she did ‘entertain’ An-An twice, but produced no offspring.

Chi Chi was captured while she was still a baby in China’s Sichuan province in 1957 and spent her first few months in Beijing zoo.  She travelled from Beijing to Moscow to Berlin, then Frankfurt and Copenhagen before arriving at Regent Park’s London Zoo in 1958. The zoological society had stated at this time that they would not encourage the collection of rare creatures such as the wild panda. But the adorable cub was too irresistible to refuse. The society made a special exemption for Chi Chi, as she had already been collected.

Chi Chi was an instant hit at London zoo from the moment she arrived. She was all over the front pages, much like Guy the gorilla another celebrity at London Zoo. She was quite the character and lived up to her name as the naughty little girl. She was always getting up to mischief and trying to escape. The nation mourned when she died in 1972. Her skin was donated to the museum so that the international icon could be preserved for ever. The innocent bamboo munching pose doesn’t seem to quite capture her extravagant and mischievous character.

The Dodo by Roelandt Savery

The Dodo by Roelandt Savery,  c.1626 © Natural History Museum, London

The Dodo by Roelandt Savery, c.1626 © Natural History Museum, London

The dodo is one of the most famous extinct species in history. The name probably comes from the Portuguese word, ‘doudo’, meaning foolish or the Dutch word ‘dodoor’, which means sluggish. The dodo has been immortalised in popular film and fiction. Lewis Carol was so impressed by a specimen at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, that he created a talking dodo character in his book, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. The poor dodo has been accused of being so stupid and obese that it caused its own extinction by failing to outrun its captors. We now know that isn’t true.

The dodo was only found on the isolated island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, over 800Km from Madagascar. Portuguese settlers reached the island in the early 16th century, but they made no record of their encounters with the curious flightless bird. The first reports of a large, clumsy, flightless bird came from Dutch settlers in 1598. The Dutch nicknamed the bird, ‘Walgvogel’ meaning disgusting, as the meat from the bird was tough and unpalatable. Within a hundred years of its discovery, the entire species was wiped out. The dodo was hunted for its meat and for specimens to be brought back to Europe for scientific study. However, this activity was not the main cause for the extinction. The Dutch settlers introduced new predators onto the island, such as dogs, rats, cats, pigs and monkeys, which ate the dodo’s eggs.