The Panda Babies

Panda diplomacy in the People’s Republic of China has a long tradition. Empress Wu Zetian already gave away the little cuddly bears during the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century to get in better contact with neighbouring countries and selected rulers. After the Communists’ victory over the Kuomintang, Mao resumed this practice in the 1950s, first giving gifts to friendly Communist leaders. The West got its first panda in the 1970s, through a gift from Mao to US President Nixon on his first visit to China. In 1980 the Berlin Zoo finally received its first pair of pandas, which was a guest gift from the Chinese head of state Hua Guofeng to the then German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.


At the same time, the panda was on the infamous “Red List” of endangered species. To lead the country out of poverty, China’s leadership, under Deng Xiaoping, relied on unbridled economic growth. For the people, this policy brought a rapid upswing – but for the pandas, it was a disaster. Human settlements smashed deeper and deeper breaks into the sensitive habitat of the pandas and made life increasingly difficult for them. In the “second large panda count” from 1985 to 1988, the dimension of the problem suddenly became clear: there were only 1,200 animals left in a very fragmented area. Without help, the panda wouldn’t see the turn of the millennium.


The international outcry eventually alarmed the Chinese leadership. The remaining habitat of the pandas was finally protected by reserves and national parks and a systematic breeding program was launched, in which zoos from all over the world also participated. The practice of donations was converted into permanent loans and the offspring was to come back to China to be poached again. Under this premise, the two pandas Meng Meng and Jiao Qing moved to the Berlin Zoo in 2017 with a lot of political celebrities and have been one of the big crowd-pullers ever since.


After my image film for the big zoo anniversary had been finished in summer, I received a call from marketing manager Christiane Reiss at the end of September. She didn’t want to reveal much on the phone, just one thing – an event was imminent. A very big event. After I had committed myself to absolute silence, we stood in a separate area of the zoo that afternoon. In front of us sat panda lady Meng Meng – heavily pregnant. With twins. The panda wasn’t too excited, he gnawed at his bamboo with relish. But the excitement at the zoo was enormous. A twin birth of pandas was a world sensation. The press would be raving about the best places.


In order to spare the panda lady the stress of a pack of nervous journalists, the zoo wanted to take the film and photo production into its own hands and provide the press centrally with footage and information. I should lead the team around Christiane with advice and deeds. In a total of 6 sessions, I was the only external photographer to take photos of the little pandas and shoot footage for the social media channels, until the workflow was finally recorded in such a way that the social media team of the zoo took over the production itself.


These are the photos of the first weeks of the two panda babies Meng Xiang and Meng Yuan.