The intensely lovely little Jiuzhaigou complex of chromatic lakes in glacially awled mini-valleys is already nearly bereft of the tubby black-and-white pandas that once thrived here—an animal now trumpeted by the government as "our national treasure" but displaced wholesale by heedless logging and a die-off of bamboo during the last decades of the past century; more than one Tibetan described the decimation to me. Masticating bamboo shoots in a semireclining position, like a sea otter munching mollusks while lounging on its back, the panda has become an endearing emblem for conservationists worldwide and carries a heavy load in this supercharged robber-baron economy. Conservation would be a novel concept to anyone unacquainted with what is supposed to be preserved, such as wildness, wildlife, natural beauty. I noticed at the Beijing Zoo that the visitors seemed to have no feeling one way or another for the apparent thirst of the bears in their waterless pit or the metronomic jackals and wolves ticktocking in the heat. In the greenery of Chengdu's parks, the din of birdsong was so frenetic and dense as to imply an extreme scarcity of nesting spaces elsewhere. Only recently did the People's Republic bar the serving of delicacies like bears' paws at official government banquets, about the same time the Dalai Lama, in his Indian exile, urged his followers to end the wearing of tigers' or leopards' skins. Edicts can't generate a conservation ethic, however. Jiuzhaigou's chief scientist told me he still found snow leopard skins openly displayed for sale nearby in Songpan for the equivalent of a hundred bucks—a month's wages for a laborer. And in Jiuzhaigou's Zaru Valley—less developed than the Shuzheng, where two or three relic pandas may yet transit or hang out and a peacefully bouncing creek is bedded in pretty rocks, topped by thousand-foot serrated escarpments, with the holy mountain Zayizaga behind them—three men were hiking out, lugging across their backs sacks of illegally collected herbs, plucked from protected areas upstream, for sale to tourists, all but 10 percent of whom at Jiuzhaigou are Chinese. They asked me for a lift.
The black-masked eyes of the pandas ubiquitously displayed on placards around the region look more tear-stained than cuddly like a nursery toy. A million of these must have been manufactured by now for every specimen that remains, uncute, in the wild. And millions of people must somehow be transported out of the slag-heap landscapes and lung-stinging air lower down to see pristine, glistening water and rainbow-feathered birds darting in sweet mountain breezes under the Tibetan Plateau's cosmic skies to bulk up a national policy of trying to save something of creation before it's destroyed. But how can millions be queued up to experience wilderness without erasing it?