Count ’em – 1,650 Pandas!

That’s a lot of cuddly coming to Bangkok next week, but the number is a reminder there’s only that many real pandas left in the wild

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IT’S HARDLY as terrifying as Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes, but the “army” of pandas that has swept through France, Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea and Hong Kong has now arrived in Thailand.

And they’re adorable. Resistance is futile.

There will be 1,650 miniature papier-mache pandas massed on the sanctified grounds of Sanam Luang and other places starting next Friday, raising a silent but visually impressive call on behalf of endangered species.

The pandas range in height from 11 to 29 centimetres and are eminently photogenic, alone or en masse.

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French artist Paulo Grangeon created the original panda model and it’s been mass-produced by the World Wildlife Fund to tour the globe and drive home the message that some of our fellow animals are in grave peril.

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The 1600 Pandas World Tour, which has made stops in 20 countries since 2008, brings to Bangkok that stirring encampment at Sanam Luang and nine other locations chosen for quick “flash mob” appearances. They’ll be popping up at the Giant Swing, Lumpini Park and Hua Lamphong Railway Station. In sum, panda-crazy Thailand will host the whole array for a month.

In an email interview arranged through his Hong Kong-based agency, AllRightsReserved, Grangeon tells The Nation that the original concept came from Serge Orru, the WWF’s director in France. The “1600” represents the number of pandas remaining in the wild at that time, in 2008. That year was also the French chapter’s 35th anniversary.

“Serge was aware that I’d developed a technique for mass-producing papier-mache models, and I was enthusiastic about his idea,” Grangeon says.

More recent surveys indicate there are now 1,864 pandas in the wilds of China, a 17-per-cent increase, and this is reflected in the plus sign added to the tour’s title for Thailand – “1600 Pandas+ World Tour”.

They must have heard about our affection for the two-tone critters. Central Embassy certainly knows about it, and has spent Bt30 million organising the tour events here. It will host the panda brigade from March 24 to April 10.

“We want Thailand to be a global art platform, where artists from all over the world can show their work to inspire and benefit others,” says Barom Bhicharnchitr, the mall’s managing director. “This exhibition not only offers the chance to reflect on the importance of wildlife conservation, but also plays an important part in promoting tourism.”

The flash-mob events, each to last three hours, have been planned for March 4 to 16 at eight places around the city and one in Ayutthaya (see info box), with a 10th location to be chosen by popular vote on the tour’sFacebook page.

Grangeon points out that the panda, which appears in the WWF logo, is one of the planet’s most endangered animals.

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“I’ve always believed that the arts are for everybody, from month-old babies to adults,” he says, “but the conservation issue is less recognisable – until you get a wakeup call. The natural environment is being destroyed without any regard for sustainable development.

“Art is an approachable medium and papier-mache mixes art with the environment. You can create a sculpture without causing any pollution, a good demonstration of how sustainability can be integrated into art and design.”

A wood sculptor for 30 years, Grangeon actually discovered the merits of papier-mache while visiting Thailand in the late 1990s. It’s pliant, lightweight enough to be highly portable, and it recycles paper. He’s made more than 10,000 papier-mache replicas for the tour at small factories in Thailand.

“My greatest pleasure came from that first paper model, but, since every one of them is handmade, each is unique – there’s always some difference from the original. The ones we produce are actually very strong, not fragile,” says the artist, who’s applied the same technique to whales and black bears.

Grangeon has to keep churning out the pandas because, once the tour moves on, all the models are sold. The project has earned more than US$300,000 for WWF since 2008.

After the exhibition at Central Embassy closes, all 1,650 critters will be up for “adoption” – the term he prefers to “sale”. The money raised will help WWF Thailand protect elephants, tigers and other at-risk species. WWF Thailand director Yowalak Thiarachow says fewer than 3,000 elephants and only 200 tigers are left in the wild here.

Enthusiasts will be able to adopt a large standing, sitting, reclining or hanging panda for Bt1,600, a medium version for Bt1,200 or a small model for Bt800. You need to register first, anytime from March 10 to 12, at www.1600PandasPlusth.com.

“I’ve created 14 different models over the years, varying in size and poses, but only two or three kinds are seen in the exhibition,” says Grangeon. “In Hong Kong I wanted to give the people something special, and since they have four real pandas – An An, Jia Jia, Ying Ying and Le Le – living there, I designed metre-tall paper sculptures of them walking, sitting, lying on a boulder and enjoying a bamboo meal.

“And in Seoul last year, to celebrate the great news that the number of pandas in the wild had increased significantly, I created a new baby panda.”

Grangeon will be back in Thailand again late next month, but he declines to say whether he might pay homage to Chuang Chuang and Lin Hui, the famed panda residents of the Chiang Mai Zoo.

“Every leg of this journey has had its unique and unforgettable moments,” he says. “The more places we go and the better the response. I’m happy the people of the world love my work and hear the message about the need for sustainability, creativity and conservation, and I always look forward to visiting more countries and spreading that message.”

FIELD OF PANDA DREAMS

Keep an eye out for the panda flash mobs at

  1. Sanam Luang on March 4, 2016
  2. Central World on March 7, 2016
  3. The Sky Walk at the Chong Nonsi BTS station on March 8, 2016
  4. The Bangkok Art and Culture Centre on March 10, 2016
  5. Santi Chai Prakan Park on March 12, 2016
  6. The Giant Swing on March 13, 2016
  7. Lumpini Park on March 14, 2016
  8. Hua Lamphong Station on March 15, 2016
  9. And at Ayutthaya’s Golden Mount Temple on March 16. 2016

They’re likely to appear from 3 to 6pm, but that can change depending on the locale. Stay tuned to the “1600pandasplusth” page on Facebook.

The exhibition at Central Embassy will run from March 24 to April 10.

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