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

There is a giant panda movement happening on Weibo, and there are two sides to it.

Manya Koetse

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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.

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. 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.

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.

By Manya Koetse

* How the money for this ‘virtual to actual bamboo’ campaign is actually raised is not explained by the organization, although it might make sense that both Sina Weibo and its advertisers are involved as they profit from social media users spending more hours on the Weibo platform by playing this game. If you have more insights into this specific topic, we would like to hear from you.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China and Covid19

Fresh Off the Boat, Xiamen Fish Are Tested for Covid-19

Catch of the day! These fish in Xiamen can’t escape their daily Covid test.

Manya Koetse

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It does not matter if you’re old or young, shrimp or fish – you can’t escape China’s zero-covid policy.

In the Jimei district of the coastal city of Xiamen, some fish and shrimp also had to do a nucleic acid test this week, leading to some banter on Chinese social media.

In the area, fishermen returning from a day of work have to undergo nucleic acid tests together with some of the fish that they caught during the day.

After the fishermen themselves have done the Covid test, they reportedly have to grab a few fresh fish from their catch of the day for the anti-epidemic workers to test. They open the mouth of the fish so that the fish can be tested with the cotton swab.

Chinese media outlet Sohu (搜狐新闻) posted a video about the issue on its Weibo account on August 17th, receiving over 90,000 likes and more than 8000 shares.

“I thought fish didn’t any lungs?” a popular comment said, with other commenters suggesting that this news made it clear that Covid “doesn’t affect the lungs but the brain instead.”

Another commenter suggested that if this matter concerned authorities, they should also start testing mosquitos.

Some also felt bad for the fish: “They still have to undergo this before getting killed.”

“The fish should be grateful for receiving a Covid test for free,” others wrote, while there were also people who wondered if parts of the sea would go into lockdown mode if some fish would test positive for Covid.

There were also critical commenters wondering about any scientific reasoning behind testing fish, asking who was getting paid to test them – suggesting commercial benefits outweigh scientific basis in this case.

“You can’t get Covid if you don’t have lungs, let alone if you live in the sea,” one Weibo user wrote, another person asking: “Have we all gone mad?”

By Manya Koetse
With contributions by Miranda Barnes

 

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China Animals

‘Welcome Home, Molly’ – Chinese Zoo Elephant Returns to Kunming after Online Protest

One small step for animal protection in China, one giant leap for Molly the elephant.

Manya Koetse

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Following online protest and the efforts of animal activists, Molly has returned to the Kunming Zoo where she was born and where mother elephant Mopo is.

The little elephant named Molly is a big topic of discussion on Chinese social media recently.

The popular Asian elephant, born in the Kunming Zoo in 2016, was separated from her mother at the age of two in April of 2018. Molly was then transferred from Kunming Zoo to Qinyang, Jiaozuo (Henan), in exchange for another elephant. Over the past few years, fans of Molly started voicing their concerns online as the elephant was trained to do tricks and performances and to carry around tourists on her back at the Qinyang Swan Lake Ecological Garden (沁阳天鹅湖生态园), the Qinyang Hesheng Forest Zoo (沁阳和生森林动物园), the Jiaozuo Forestry Zoo (焦作森林动物园), and the Zhoukou Safari Park (周口野生动物世界).

Since the summer of 2021, more people started speaking out for Molly’s welfare when they spotted the elephant chained up and seemingly unhappy, forced to do handstands or play harmonica, with Molly’s handlers using iron hooks to coerce her into performing.

Earlier this month, Molly became a big topic on Chinese social media again due to various big accounts on Xiaohongshu and Weibo posting about the ‘Save Molly’ campaign and calling for an elephant performance ban in China (read more).

Although zookeepers denied any animal abuse and previously stated that the elephant is kept in good living conditions and that animal performances are no longer taking place, Molly’s story saw an unexpected turn this week. Thanks to the efforts of online netizens, Molly fans, and animal welfare activists, Molly was removed from Qinyang.

A popular edited image of Molly that has been shared a lot online.

On May 15, the Henan Forestry Bureau – which regulates the holding of all exotic species, including those in city zoos – announced that Molly would return to Kunming in order to provide “better living circumstances” for the elephant. A day later, on Monday, Molly left Qinyang and returned to the Kunming Zoo where she was born. In Kunming, Molly will first receive a thorough health check during the observation period.

Official announcement regarding Molly by the Henan Forestry Administration.

Many online commenters were happy to see Molly returning home. “Finally! This is great news,” many wrote, with others saying: “Please be good to her” and “Finally, after four years of hardship, Molly will be reunited with her mother.”

Besides regular Weibo accounts celebrating Molly’s return to Kunming, various Chinese state media accounts and official accounts (e.g. the Liaocheng Communist Youth League) also posted about Molly’s case and wished her a warm welcome and good wishes. One Weibo post on the matter by China News received over 76,000 likes on Monday.

Although many view the effective online ‘Save Molly’ campaign as an important milestone for animal welfare in China, some animal activists remind others that there are still other elephants in Chinese zoos who need help and better wildlife protection laws. Among them are the elephant Kamuli (卡目里) and two others who are still left in Qinyang.

For years, animal welfare activists in China and in other countries have been calling for Chinese animal protection laws. China does have wildlife protection laws, but they are often conflicting and do not apply to pets and there is no clear anti-animal abuse law.

“I’ll continue to follow this. What are the next arrangements? What is the plan for Molly and the other elephants? How will you guarantee a safe and proper living environment?”

Another Weibo user writes: “This is just a first step, there is much more to be done.”

To follow more updates regarding Molly, check out Twitter user ‘Diving Paddler’ here. We thank them for their contributions to this article.

To read more about zoos and wildlife parks causing online commotion in China, check our articles here.

By Manya Koetse

References (other sources linked to within text)

Arcus Foundation (Ed.). 2021. State of the Apes: Killing, Capture, Trade and Ape Conservation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

China Daily. 2012. “Animal Rights Groups Seek Performance Ban.” China Daily, April 16 http://www.china.org.cn/environment/2012-04/16/content_25152066.htm [Accessed May 1 2022].

Li, Peter J. 2021. Animal Welfare in China: Culture, Politics and Crisis. Sydney: Sydney University Press.

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©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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