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A bigger net than Stanhope’s

06 September 2019

Ian Tattum recounts the extraordinary life of Père David, who discovered the giant panda


Père Armand David (1826-1900)

Père Armand David (1826-1900)

SUMMER is buddleia time. If you love butterflies and other flying insects, you might have planted one in your garden — or at least tolerated the one that has introduced itself and is now sprouting from a crevice or cranny. If you travel regularly by train, you will have passed hundreds of buddleia plants that have migrated along the stony arteries provided by railway lines.

Officially an “invasive species”, the buddleia has become a companion to people, particularly urban dwellers. Richard Mabey, in his book Weeds: The story of outlaw plants (Profile Books, 2010), writes: “They are recognisable neighbours, vegetable squatters . . . impertinent, streetwise, living one step ahead of the developers and the puritan fusspots. The spirit of Banksy is alive in them.”

Buddleja davidii’s opportunism comes from its origin in the mountains of Tibet. It was, as its scientific name reminds us, brought to the attention of Western European science by the extraordinary French missionary priest Père Armand David.

Père David, born in 1826 in Espelette, near Bayonne, in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, had adventures that stand comparison with those described by St Paul in 2 Corinthians: there were feats of great endurance, riots, hardship, sleepless nights, and hunger; but he was sustained by a confidence in the power of God. Along the way, he endured treks of more than 30 miles each day, infestations of ticks, swarms of horseflies, stand-offs with bandits, runaway camels, multiple illnesses, and Chinese bureaucracy.

In three pioneer journeys, taken between 1864 and 1874, by foot or on a mule, Père David covered thousands of miles, and sent back knowledge of hundreds of plants, birds, insects, and mammals to scientific institutions in France. His most famous find, the giant panda — which he saw for the first time on 23 March 1869 — was to become a universal emblem of nature conservation.


I WAS eight days old when Chi-Chi the giant panda arrived at London Zoo in September 1958, after an extraordinary journey dictated by the geopolitics of the day, which had taken her from beyond the Bamboo Curtain via Moscow and East Berlin to Regent’s Park, where she quickly captured the nation’s heart.

ALAMYMilu deer, also known as Père David’s deer, cross a river in Dafeng Milu National Nature Reserve in Jiangsu Province, China

This black-and-white animal, which seemed to all children to be their dream of a teddy bear made fur and flesh — although, bafflingly, named for a relative of the raccoon — was readily taken up by the World Wild Life Fund as its symbole when it was formed in 1961.

The “discovery” of the giant panda happened only because of a previous opening up of relations between East and West. When Père David arrived in China in 1862, the country had only recently become accessible to Western travellers and traders, as a result of the favourable conditions imposed on it by Great Britain and France in the wake of the infamous Opium Wars.

Père David had joined the order of St Vincent de Paul in 1848, having experienced a powerful call to missionary work since childhood. Inspired by his father to explore the natural world when very young, he developed a fascination with and expertise in natural history. Valuing this knowledge, his order sent him to Savona, on the Italian Riviera, where he taught natural sciences. Soon after arriving there, he pleaded with his superior to be sent to China, to help save “the infidels”, but he had to wait ten more years before his wish was granted.

IAN TATTUMA Red Admiral rests on Buddleja davidii

Thanks to the early missions to China, led by the Jesuits, priests with valuable scientific or technical skills found it easier to win the acceptance of the Imperial Court. And so Père David was chosen, along with two companions, who were skilled in mathematics, physics, and clock-making, to join the existing Vincentian Mission in Beijing.

At first, he remained in Beijing and its vicinity, but very quickly his scientific discoveries led the Académie des Sciences, in Paris, to offer funding to the Vincentians to release him to explore further afield. So, in March 1866, he ventured north towards Mongolia and Tibet, taking with him paraphernalia for collecting specimens, and for celebrating mass.

It was during that first journey that he came across Buddleja davidii and the Mongolian gerbil, and sent back to Paris the skins of 150 birds and mammals (mostly shot by himself), and 260 types of insect. Although this might seem shocking to modern sensibilities, from Gilbert White through to Charles Darwin and beyond, shooting and trapping specimens was the established and most convenient way to identify new species and communicate discoveries. An account in his journal of trying to bring down high-flying swifts now seems darkly comical.

Père David hoped to find the legendary blue pheasant and mysterious black-and-white bear, the pu-hsiang, but failed. He also mistakenly believed that he had located the habitat of unicorns.


PÈRE DAVID was no mere collector. He welcomed the ideas about evolution which had recently been brought to light by Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin, and was glad to be contributing to scientific knowledge and understanding. In his third diary, he wrote: “The smallest facts about nature, provided they are exact, are of great importance today in helping to understand the scheme of the world. . . A dot, a comma, a small line are not important in themselves but have value in relation to the whole, and can change radically its final significance.”

He saw no conflict between evolution and Christianity: “All science is dedicated to the study of God’s works and glorifies the Author; science is praiseworthy and even holy in its objective.”

Those same diaries record that, wherever he was, the day began and ended with prayer.


WHEN I was 11 years old, I visited Woburn Safari Park for the first time, and, in my eagerness to see tigers and lions free of their cages, I hardly registered the herd of grey Père David’s deer which roamed the grounds. But the story of the “discovery” and salvation of these remarkable animals is one of the great stories in the history of conservation.

Not long after first coming to China, Père David had heard a rumour of an extraordinary creature. In the imperial hunting park at Nan-hai-tzu, there lived the milu, which was also intriguingly known as the ssu-pu-hsiang: literally, “not like four”. It was like a horse, and yet unlike; like an ox, and yet unlike; like a deer, and yet unlike; like a goat, and yet unlike.

Unfortunately, the imperial hunting park was forbidden to all Europeans: a wall 45 miles in circumference prevented access, and the death penalty awaited anyone who violated the prohibition.

Undeterred, Père David headed south from Beijing and checked the boundary, eventually finding a section of the wall which was being repaired. Springing up on to a pile of bricks that the workmen had left behind at the end of their day’s work, he looked inside and became the first Westerner to see the animal that was to be named Elaphurus davidianus in his honour.

This animal turned out to be not quite as extravagantly odd as legend had painted it: it was clearly a kind of deer. But, even in that short glance, Père David was able to notice the extreme length of its tail; its back-to-front antlers; its strange hooves, like those of a cow; and its mule-like gait.

ALAMYA Giant Panda, in China

Determined to obtain a specimen of this animal that was new to science, he sought the help of the French legation in Beijing. When that failed, he went to the imperial park again, with a bag full of cash, and bribed one of the Tartar guards to throw a hide and a skeleton over the wall.

Their interest piqued by his discovery, the diplomats in the French Embassy persuaded a mandarin with responsibility for the imperial estates to let a few deer wander out of the park, where they were surreptitiously rounded up and taken to the embassy grounds. In 1870, a few more were “liberated” and taken to Paris; later, their progeny were sent to the Duke of Bedford’s estate at Woburn, where they formed the basis of the herd that thrives to this day.

In the mean time, the deer in China had been subjected to flooding and the desperate hunger of locals and foreign troops during the Boxer rebellion, and, in 1900, became extinct.

At almost exactly the same time as Chi-Chi was making her journey west, four young Père David’s deer headed east from Woburn to begin a new herd in Beijing. Zoologists now think that the animal he found in the imperial deer park had been extinct in the wild for 3000 years; so it has been saved by captivity.

As for the giant panda, after more than a century of debate, the scientific community has come round to agree with the missionary priest who first brought it to their attention, and to all the children who have ever fallen in love with it. It is, triumphantly, a black and white bear.

The Revd Ian Tattum is the Vicar of St Barnabas’s, Southfields, in south London.

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