BERLIN - On Wednesday morning, at Berlin Zoo, Bao Bao the giant panda died in his sleep at the age of 34 -- which for a panda is a ripe old age. Berlin mourns him, the zoo mourns him … but all the attention will quickly fade away. The truth is that Bao Bao’s story ended a long time ago. And it’s a sad one.
When Bao Bao came to Berlin at the age of two, the world was a different place. West Germany’s capital was Bonn, Helmut Schmidt was Chancellor, and Hua Guofeng, Mao’s direct successor, was leader of China. Hua presented Schmidt with Bao Bao and a female panda named Tian Tian as official state gifts. Of all the principals in this scene, only Helmut Schmidt is still alive.
Yet as time wore on, even though Bao Bao stayed alive, he was already a thing of the past, custodian of a hope that remained unfulfilled.
In his last years, he had become progressively thinner. Keeping their weight up is in any case something of a challenge for giant pandas. Although they are carnivores, their food consists mostly of bamboo, which is poor in nutrients. Pandas’ digestive systems are not as perfectly adapted to raw plant food as those of ruminants and they have to eat huge quantities to keep their metabolism going. This means that pandas don’t have a lot of time to do much else but eat.
The story of Bao Bao must also be seen in the following context: this type of bear with very little capacity to adapt to changing circumstances found itself in a dangerous situation—mostly because of the destruction of its habitat by farming and deforestation -- that it would not have been in a position to survive without human intervention.
China, eager for business with the capitalist world, put the last remaining panda habitats under protection; its care for the adorable species being a way of diverting the attention of its future economic partners away from some of the less than praiseworthy activities of the Cultural Revolution.
Anyway, the German Federal Republic happily accepted the two pandas and installed them in what was then West Berlin, Germany’s showcase, so that everybody could see the rich fruits the then nascent Sino-German collaboration would bear (no pun intended).
Except -- there were no rich fruits.
And herein lies the seed of Bao Bao’s tragic story, even as his first years in Germany took on the character of something out of popular theater. At the time the big question was “Did they or didn’t they?” – i.e. have Bao Bao and Tian Tian mated yet – and it brought previously unheard of numbers of visitors to Berlin Zoo where the two young bears and their antics singlehandedly created the image in the public mind of what pandas are all about. Tian Tian reached puberty in 1981, but Bao Bao didn’t and showed no sexual interest in her. The two started fighting and had to be separated.
Tian Tian died of an infection in 1984, but the hope of panda offspring didn’t die with her. Bao Bao was sent to London to procreate – but instead bit one of his intended partner’s ears off. Back in Berlin, it was hoped he would mate with Yan Yan, a female panda on loan from China for just this purpose. But again he wasn’t interested, and even electro-ejaculation for him and hormone treatments for her did not produce the desired results (although Yan Yan did take to masturbating with bamboo stalks).
Yan Yan died in 2007 without having produced offspring. Bao Bao was the only one left, and it has to be said he was still quite famous and maybe his wasn’t the worst fate for an old, lonely panda. Nobody knows if he realized that he had been supplanted in the cuteness sweepstakes by Knut, the baby polar bear born at Berlin Zoo. Not only was Knut super cute, he was a powerful symbol of the melting ice wrought by climate change in his natural habitat – and that potent combination melted away the last of the panda mystique.
Bao Bao not only lost muscle mass, which is to be expected in an old bear – he lost his aura.
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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