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From TikTok to Southern Charm, Inside the Conspiracy Theory That Pandas Aren't Real
Tongue-in-cheek jest and the weird behavior of bamboo-munching bears combine for perfect conspiracy theory fodder.
Pandas are vulnerable but adorable creatures beloved the world over. They are so fuzzy and huggable that the World Wildlife Foundation chose them as the icon to represent global conservation efforts, they have served as animal ambassadors to smooth relations between nations, and they even saved the world (animated as it might be) in the Dreamworks Animation family film Kung Fu Panda. Yet, depending on who you ask, they might not exist at all.
A conspiracy theory suggesting that pandas are actually just people in suits has been gaining traction on TikTok recently, but it’s not a wholly new idea. The notion that certain animals aren’t real hearkens back to recent suggestions that a Sun Bear in a Chinese Zoo was a zookeeper in a suit and the shockingly persistent spoof conspiracy that birds aren’t real.
The conspiracy recently popped up on the Bravo original series Southern Charm, when on a guy’s trip to Linville, North Carolina, Craig Conover asks a question that’s been on his mind: Are pandas real? The other men riding along in a sprinter van look at him skeptically and start to laugh as he continued, “I really wanted them to be real.”
“Craig and all those conspiracies. I really think Craig has got a screw loose,” Shep Rose told producers. When friend Rodrigo Reyes asked why he doesn’t think pandas are real, Conover responded, while laughing a bit, “There’s just no evidence of it.”
“Pandas definitely aren’t real,” Conover later told producers. “They are people in panda suits.”
Conover has always been a bit of a conspiracy theorist, and this week’s episode flashes back to Season 5, in 2018, when he was telling Chelsea Meissner that he didn’t want to get a “crazy government shot” because he was worried he’d “walk backwards for the rest of my life.”
Catch up more on Southern Charm in next week’s episode, airing November 9, when Conover gets his friends to don tinfoil hats and discuss more of his theories.
Are Pandas Really an Elaborate Hoax of People in Suits?
No. Pandas are really cute, really vulnerable, and really real. That said, there’s nothing wrong with questioning things, even things which are taken as undisputed fact, so let’s get into it. If you’re going to question the validity of a creature, pandas aren’t a bad bet. They are unusual animals.
Evidence cited in support of fake pandas includes the facts that pandas are persistently clumsy, are ostensibly carnivores which nevertheless live on a diet of bamboo, and they are famously bad at reproducing. If you were going to fake a species with a group of costume-wearing actors, pandas might be the sort of animal you pretend to be.
If it is a conspiracy (it’s not), then it’s a fairly elaborate one. There are roughly 650 pandas in zoos and other captive animal facilities around the world, each of which would have to have a person inside.
Keeping that many suits filled around the clock would require a couple thousand people working in shifts and that’s without accounting for people designing, building, and maintaining the suits. Add to that the design of a system for consuming and temporarily storing bamboo (visitors need to see the pandas eating), construction of enclosures, zoo staff, documentary crews, biologists, and other scientists, all of whom would need to either be fooled or in on the ruse.
Add to that the estimated 1,900 panda bears living in the wild. Dumping people in suits out in bamboo forests would bring all new meaning to the phrase “remote work.” And those numbers would need to increase over time because panda populations are recovering. The species has bounced back enough, in fact, that the WWF has downgraded them from endangered to vulnerable status, citing a 17 percent population increase over the last decade.
Perhaps the greatest evidence of the reality of pandas – aside from the truth of your eyes – is their presence in the fossil record. The preserved remains of ancestral pandas have been found in parts of China dating back 6 million years or more. Moreover, those ancestral pandas emerged around the same time as vast bamboo forests picked up in the area and have adaptations which helped them shift toward a plant-based diet.
Pandas are weird, so weird that they might not seem real sometimes, but they are weird for reasons that are pretty well understood. And with any luck, they'll still be around for a long time yet.