Growing Virtual Bamboo for Real Pandas: Weibo’s Panda Movement

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Watching panda livestreams online, sharing worries over pandas in captivity, and now raising a virtual panda to help grow bamboo – Weibo has a panda movement going on, and it is a giant one.

Last month, the account ‘Panda Guardians’ (@熊猫守护者) sent out a video on Weibo focused on the topic of saving pandas in Shaanxi by planting more bamboo. In a month, the video gained around 1,5 million views and much online support. The video by the ‘Panda Guardians’ was the follow-up to a Weibo-based game where users can gain points which can be used for “growing bamboo” for a virtual panda – which actually funds the planting of real bamboo in Shaanxi.

Growing Virtual Bamboo for Real Pandas: Weibo’s Panda Movement

In the game, which received much online appreciation, a virtual panda pet gets ‘fed’ with the bamboo grown by the points users receive by getting registered for the game, posting it on Weibo, inviting friends, etc. Players also get a cute panda badge on their Weibo account for ‘raising’ their own virtual panda. In the Panda Guardian game, users can feed their ‘panda’ bamboo by sharing, commenting, and inviting friends.
For every 10,000 hours of time Weibo netizens collectively raise their virtual panda, the China Virescence Foundation (中国绿化基金会, China’s organization for planting trees) promises to foster and plant actual bamboo trees in the Qinling mountain range in Shaanxi, one of the regions where most of China’s remaining wild pandas live.

“Chinese netizens can play a role in giant panda conservation – even if the scientific community may not be fully onboard.” The panda game is just one of many ways in which Weibo’s ‘panda movement’ manifests itself. Weibo user Kyle Obermann (@欧阳凯kyle), an environmental photographer in China, recently posted a short documentary on Weibo about panda conservation in the forests of Sichuan, which gained over 500,000 views in a few days time. “The whole issue of panda conservation and what it means to be a ‘panda guardian’ in real life and online is all over Weibo right now,” Obermann told What’s on Weibo: “It’s an interesting example of how Chinese netizens can play a role in giant panda conservation – even if the scientific community may not be fully onboard.”

What Obermann refers to, is that besides the positive comments to online initiatives taken by organizations as the ‘Panda Guardians’ and their Weibo game, there is also some criticism from the environmental community for the focus on “planting bamboo” as a solution for the problem of the panda’s vulnerability of extinction. “It is not so much the lack of bamboo that is the panda’s problem, it is the lack of a natural living environment that is undisturbed by human intervention,” they said. Obermann’s short documentary highlights the tough journey of those commited to the conservation of the wild giant panda in China. But, according to Obermann, the online ‘panda movement’ does make a difference in raising awareness for the protection of the wild giant panda, and also in creating a wider understanding amongst social media users for those people who spend their time plowing through the forests through wind and rain in doing their jobs monitoring and protecting the giant panda. “There are dozens of accounts on Weibo dedicated to the giant panda and its conservation.”

Besides the ‘Panda Guardians’ and people such as Obermann, there are dozens of other accounts on Weibo dedicated to the giant panda and its conservation. On the iPanda channel (@iPanda熊猫频道), people can watch live streams and videos of the pandas at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda (@中国大熊猫保护研究中心). On the iPanda channel, viewers can follow the everyday life of pandas at the research base.

The great interest in pandas on Chinese social media just shows that the giant panda really is China’s most beloved animal. It the cultural symbol of China, and is generally called a ‘national treasure’ (国宝). Its well-being and protection, both in the wilderness as in captivity, has been a state priority since the 1960s, when China’s first wild animal protection reserve focused on panda protection was opened in northern Sichuan (Wanglang Reserve, 1965). Apart from the pandas that are kept at China’s various panda reserves, there are also pandas in zoos across China, from Beijing to Chongqing, and from Guilin to Guangzhou. Over the past few years, it is the circumstances of some of the pandas in Chinese zoos that have caused multiple controversies.

Previously in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, netizens posted photos of the apparent unhealthy pandas at specifically the Lanzhou Zoo, and expressed concerns and outrage over their well-being. “I’m furious to see some netizens even slandering our base for not providing enough food for the pandas.” At times, the love of Weibo’s fierce and protective panda might go too far.

Growing Virtual Bamboo for Real Pandas: Weibo’s Panda Movement

This week, the famous Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base was collectively accused of cruelty on social media networks when visitors claimed its bears were ill and mistreated. The accusations started when people posted images online that showed some pandas at the Research Base with white scabs around their eyes. Netizens accused the Chengdu Research center of mistreatment of its pandas after photos were posted online showing a panda with white scabs around its eyes (photo: China Daily).

The Straits Times reports that an article that went viral on January 23 also accused the Chengdu base of using their pandas for commercial gains, not giving them enough food, and that it violated the wellbeing of the animals by allowing visitors to take pictures and hug with a giant panda in exchange for donations.

On January 24, the research base denied all rumors of mistreatment of its pandas and explained that three of its pandas recently contracted an eye disease that is now being treated by its experts. It also denied that its pandas were being used for commercial gains. The Straits Times quotes Zhang Zhihe, chief of the Chengdu Research Base, in saying: “I’m furious to see some netizens even slandering our base for not providing enough food for the pandas.” Zhang also said it was not true that the research base allows people to hug pandas and charge money for it. “That never happened once,” he said. “We understand your love for the giant pandas, but we all have our own way of expressing it.”

There are two sides to Weibo’s ‘panda movement’. On one side, the love of Chinese netizens for their ‘national treasure’ goes so far that everybody seems to have become a panda expert – quick to point their fingers at researchers and shout abuse when a panda seems unwell to them. In January of 2017, the China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Panda (中国大熊猫保护研究中心) addressed this kind of criticism on Weibo in January. While they thanked Chinese online panda lovers for their concerns, they also asked them to stop posting abusive comments towards them and their employees. They wrote: “We understand your love for the giant pandas, everyone here at the China Giant Panda Conservation Research Center loves them, but we all have our own way of expressing it. For you it means you raise your concerns by posting blogs in the middle of the night, for us it means that our employees work night shifts taking care of the pandas, watching the monitors and keeping records.”

Despite that these online movements at times arguably may go too far, the silver lining is that they help in making people more aware of the importance of the conservation of the panda and environmental protection at large.

Growing Virtual Bamboo for Real Pandas: Weibo’s Panda Movement

The TFBoys support panda conservation. The Weibo-game by the ‘Panda Guardians,’ also backed by popular celebrities such as the members of Chinese boy band TFBoys (12.9 million fans on Weibo), has succeeded in creating an online buzz in which Weibo users are trying to reach a collective goal that helps the panda conservation movement. By now, the hashtag ‘Panda Guardians’ (#熊猫守护者#) has reached the top three of top public causes on Weibo. “Together we can do it, help grow bamboo and help the pandas,” many netizens post. If anything, this kind of panda movement at the very minumum shows that netizens are hopeful that their online efforts will actually make an offline change.

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