Pere David: missionary and friend of pandas and gerbils

The first Westerner to set eyes on the giant panda was Armand David (1826-1900). He is widely known as Père David, for he belonged to the Congregation of the Mission, founded by St Vincent de Paul.

- The Catholic Herald

In 1869, as a missionary in China, based at Muping in Sichuan, he heard tales of a 'white bear' in the mountainous forests. It was Père David’s second year in China, and Muping was the remote spot where St Laurent-Joseph-Marius Imbert (canonised in 1984) had founded a college in 1831, before going on to Korea, where he met his martyrdom.

For Père David, the mountains proved as dangerous as the friction between the forces of the Chinese Empire and the prince who ruled the region. Once, after attempting to cross a steep ridge by hanging on to stunted trees in the snow, he and his guide were benighted and lost, as icy rain began to fall.

That would have been the end of them had they not heard distant voices and been rescued by mountain folk who offered them their tree-bough beds in a hut for the night.

Père David chose instead to sit before the fire saying his Office. On March 11 of that year, he saw, in the house of a man called Li, the pelt of a panda, with the unexpected, but now familiar, black and white markings. On March 23, his trackers captured a young live panda, but, to bring it back, they killed it.

Père David, who always felt a Franciscan awe at the works of creation, regretted killing animals to provide scientific specimens, but he was obliged to follow the naturalists’ convention of preserving skins, in order to send them to the Natural History Museum in Paris.

At the beginning of April 1869, hunters near Muping brought him a specimen of an adult panda. He noticed that the black markings were less dark than in the juvenile. On April 7 he was brought a live panda, which 'does not look fierce, and behaves like a little bear.'

To the French, the panda first became known as l’ours du Père David -­ Père David’s bear. More recently, scientists said, 'no, no, it’s not a bear at all, it should be classified with the raccoons.' But in the past generation molecular and genetic studies have convinced taxonomists that the panda is a bear after all, if a strange one.

Two dangers almost prevented Père David’s discoveries ever becoming known. First, the summer humidity in his workshop at the mission station encouraged a plague of hide-eating insects, no matter what preservatives he used on the skins of unknown animals and birds. Secondly, sickness almost killed the priest.

FULL STORY Pere David, the bold priest who brought us gerbils (The Catholic Herald)

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