THE LADY AND THE PANDA

The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China's Most Exotic Animal

By Vicki Constantine Croke

Random House. 372 pp. $ 25.95

On July 9, a giant panda was born at the National Zoo -- a triumph for zoo professionals and a focus of such public interest that it might come as a surprise to learn how recently the West took the panda to its heart. In 1934, when hunter Bill Harkness told his wife, Ruth, that his next expedition would be in search of a giant panda, the species was unknown outside zoological circles, and she thought he must have said "panther." That the elusive black-and-white animal is so well known today as to have become the symbol of the World Wildlife Fund and with it the embodiment of many conservation hopes and fears, is in large part because of what Ruth Harkness did next.

Native to the dense bamboo forests of the Sino-Tibetan border, the giant panda remained hidden from Western eyes until 1869, when a French missionary saw its distinctive woolly coat displayed in his host's home. During the next 60 years, a handful of pelts emerged from the region: trophies of hunting expeditions that sought this rarest of prey. In 1934, The Washington Post framed the hunters' challenge in a new way, suggesting that the world's zoos might compete to pay as much as $25,000 for the first live panda that could be put on display. As it happens, no zoo was willing to part with more than $2,000 for the first live panda cub offered in the West only two years later; zoo representatives cited uncertainties about whether such an unfamiliar animal could be kept alive and whether the baby panda's naturally bowed back legs were not evidence of a diseased specimen with rickets. But in 1934, it seemed inconceivable that the capture of a panda could bring anything other than wealth and renown.

Bill Harkness aspired to the prize, but it was not to be his. In February 1936, he died from throat cancer in Shanghai. Back home in Manhattan, Ruth Harkness inherited $20,000, a roomful of expedition equipment on the other side of the world and a strong sense that she should set off in pursuit of Bill's dream. In April, waved off by a cocktail set for whom this was the most glorious joke imaginable, she set sail for Shanghai. When she next stood on American soil, in December 1936, she was holding Su-Lin, the first live giant panda ever to be seen outside its native home.

Were "The Lady and the Panda" simply an account of this journey, the book would be astonishing enough. But it is Vicki Constantine Croke's achievement to make this most improbable of explorations resonate like a classic quest narrative in which the journey into the unknown is as much about inner transformation as external conquest. Fighting public skepticism and professional jealousy, Ruth Harkness, the novice explorer, succeeded where the established fraternity of animal hunters had repeatedly failed, and in doing so discovered what she finally wanted.

Writing in a lyrically descriptive style -- at its best in describing the panda's natural habitat of "dense stands of head-high bamboo, great dead logs covered in slippery moss, fields of knee-deep sphagnum moss engorged with icy water" -- Croke declines to pass judgment on Harkness or her actions, leaving questions only for those readers who care to think them through. The best example of this is the account of Harkness's attempt to leave China with Su-Lin but without the requisite paperwork. Through headlines in the contemporary American press, we see the episode as an example of how bureaucratic intransigence threatened the life of the tiny cub. The reader's concern is all for Su-Lin, greedily sucking milk from the baby's bottle that Harkness had instinctively thought to pack. But had Harkness been attempting to smuggle a cultural artifact out of China rather than a living creature, we might be less sympathetic to her disregard for the legal formalities. Here, as elsewhere, Croke's readers can pause and discover their own views or simply succumb to a great page-turner.

Like all quest heroes, Harkness found that her journey changed forever the desirability of its end. After the death of Su-Lin in captivity, and later of two other captives while in transit, Harkness released her final catch, Su-Sen, not far from the site of capture. Returning as near to this place as possible to see pandas in their native habitat, Croke finds herself close to China's largest panda reserve of Wolong, a 785-square-mile sanctuary for some of the estimated 1,600 pandas in the wild today. But unless isolated pockets of this remaining population can mix, inbreeding will combine with logging and human encroachment to doom the species. Joy at the birth of a panda to Mei Xiang at the National Zoo is a potent reminder of the wonder that Harkness's cub inspired and the fascination that the species continues to exert. Croke's book is a timely reminder that the fate of the panda, now more than ever, is firmly in our hands.