When you think of pandas, you typically think about one of two things: One, the adorable, monochromatic animal that was the subject of a 2003 DreamWorks Animation film, or two, that song by Desiigner. The latest conspiracy theory currently making the rounds on TikTok concerns the former — specifically, whether or not panda bears are real, or whether, as some have speculated, they are simply humans in bear costumes.
As discussed on this week’s episode of Don’t Let This Flop, Rolling Stone‘s podcast about internet culture, the “pandas aren’t real” conspiracy theory has been circulating on the internet in some form for a long time. On Reddit, for instance, a 2015 post with the headline, “I’m fairly certain pandas are just an extremely elaborate hoax” received a few thousand upvotes, with people speculating whether pandas are just humans in adult costumes, because of how human-like a lot of their movements are. Others have also pointed out odd facts about pandas — such as that they are carnivores that almost exclusively eat bamboo, or that they famously refuse to have sex in captivity — to underscore what they perceive to be the evolutionary impossibility of their existence.
To complicate things even further, there have been documented cases of zoos faking panda bears. For instance, a zoo in Taiwan was reportedly caught dying a sun bear black and white and marketing it as a panda in the late 1980s. An Italian circus was also caught dying puppies black-and-white in an effort to pass them off as pandas in 2014. Such incidents clearly have given skeptics ammunition to believe that panda bears as a whole aren’t real.