March of the pandas

In an effort to raise conservation awareness, French artist Paulo Grangeon created 1,600 adorable miniature papier-mache bears—one for each real panda left in the wild. The art installation has appeared in Paris, Rome, Hong Kong, and most recently, Bangkok.

The 1600 Pandas exhibition by French artist Paulo Grangeon has made its way to Bangkok, Thailand. Here, the pandas sit on the Sathorn Skywalk as a message about environmental preservation. Vichan Poti | Pacific Press | LightRocket | Getty Images

Adorable paper pandas are taking over cities from Paris to Rome, and now Hong Kong and Bangkok (as part of a 10-day long tour of Asia this week), flooding landmarks, bridges and beaches alike. Their cute, cuddly faces are prompting loud aww‘s and selfies wherever they go, but their message is a somber one. For every single one of these small, sweet looking pandas that French artist Paulo Grangeon places in a city square or on a street, there is a living-and-breathing, full-size counter part in the natural world, struggling to survive. The total number of his papier-mache creations matches the number of wild pandas left in the world: 1,600.

1600 Pandas exhibition by French artist Paulo Grangeon

The pandas previously made an appearance in Paris, France. The number of pandas represents the only 1,600 pandas that are left in the wild. Francois Guillot | AFP | Getty Images

At first glance Grangeon’s pandas may seem overwhelming, but when you think of this grouping as a finite number, representative of living things, the cluster of miniature papier-mache sculptures suddenly looks small. What was once an entire species has been reduced to a large herd. To put that another way: There are more Panda Express chain restaurant locations (over 1,800) than there are pandas in the world.

According to the World Wildlife Foundation (whose symbol is also a panda), the population of wild pandas has dwindled dramatically in recent years due mainly to hunting, a lack of wild mating, and the fact that the natural habitats of pandas are shrinking every year. (Yet, as cities continue to grow, the number of wild pigeons in urban areas is rising, with an estimated 1 million pigeons in New York City alone. A scary thought.) Pandas are being forced out of the lush forests in China’s Yangtze basin region, which holds the panda’s primary habitat, by the increasing need for roads and railroads. This industrialization isolates panda populations, reduces access to natural food like bamboo, and even prevents mating. Though the Chinese government has established more than 50 panda reserves, the WWF says that only around 61% of the country’s panda population is protected by them.

Did you know? Adult Giant Pandas can grow to more than four feet, and may weigh anywhere from 220 to 330 pounds.

Though he clearly cares deeply for the panda today, Grangeon didn’t start out as a panda activist, or even a papier mache artist. For 20 years, he worked almost exclusively with wood as a designer for an international factory, which set up sculpture exhibitions all over the world. Then, in 1999, Grangeon discovered papier mache for the first time and was so taken with it that he opened up his own studio and store for his projects called ‘Matiere Premiere’, meaning ‘Raw Materials’. Eager to learn more, he also traveled to Thailand to study the culture’s techniques for papier mache.

A few years later, Grangeon partnered with the World Wildlife Foundation to help raise awareness about endangered animals. Since the panda is indigenous to Asia, it seems only fitting that the bears be made from an Asian-influenced art form. Grangeon told reporters that in order to create his papier mache army, he made a few original molds of the pandas in different poses, then copied them. He added that he often worked on them for 12 hours a day without breaks. Truly, it was (and still is, as the pandas march from city to city) a labor of love.

To find out where the 1,600 pandas are headed next, follow them on Facebook. To donate to the WFF, simply visit their web page here.

1600 Pandas exhibition by French artist Paulo Grangeon

A close up of one of Grangeon’s sweetly smiling pandas. Guillaume Payen | LightRocket | Getty Images

Natalie van der Meer
Natalie van der Meer
Senior Editor Natalie van der Meer is a former editor for Redbook, Woman's Day, Reader's Digest and Allure, covering fashion, beauty, travel, family, book reviews, and much more. She lives in New York City.

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