There's no obvious connection between an American PR girl raised on the prairies, a Chinese patriot imprisoned for his country in colonial Hong Kong, a famed American humorist planning a crazy car rally from Paris to Beijing right after the Cultural Revolution, and the giant panda. But 30 years ago, these serendipitous links led to China's historic opening to the global conservation movement and the first international scientific project to study - and protect - pandas in the wild. In a year of anniversaries - from the founding of the People's Republic, to the flight of the Dalai Lama and the Tiananmen crackdown - the story behind China's decision in September 1979 to invite in the (then) World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is probably the least known. It began in Hong Kong with an uncommon friendship between two unorthodox individuals bold enough to cross the political and cultural gulf that isolated China during the Cultural Revolution. One was motivated by a love of animals, the other by a love of country. Conservation pioneer and long-time Hong Kong resident Nancy Nash was public relations manager at the Hilton Hotel in 1967 when she met Mr 'T.C.' Wu Tai-chow, then president of the left-wing Chinese newspaper The Hong Kong Evening News. Many people in Hong Kong were wary of meeting left-wing figures at that time, recalled Mr Wu, more recently the founding director of the Pets Central veterinary chain. But, with the blessing of shadowy, powerful figures in Beijing, Mr Wu participated in uproarious lunch gatherings at the Hilton with celebrated foreign correspondents such as Richard Hughes of The Sunday Times. Miss Nash facilitated as 'a young and innocent onlooker'. 'Next thing I knew, this charming, funny man was in Stanley prison,' she said. Mr Wu received a three-year sentence for seditious articles published during the 1967 riots in Hong Kong. He said it was the quid pro quo for Anthony Grey, the Reuters correspondent placed under house arrest the previous month in Beijing. On his release, Miss Nash threw a party for him at the Hilton, the site of today's Cheung Kong Centre, in Central. Later, she introduced Mr Wu to the late American humorist and author S.J. Perelman, who wanted to stage a 'Paris-to-Peking' car rally, recreating - in reverse - an epic rally of a bygone era. Mr Wu instantly grasped that an out-of-the-box idea like this could help foreigners understand China, and vice versa, as the country emerged from the Cultural Revolution. He began opening doors in Beijing. Miss Nash accompanied Mr Perelman to Beijing in late 1978, a first trip which opened her eyes to the sweeping change coming over China. While illness prevented Mr Perelman from realising his dream, Miss Nash saw the potential to work with China on her life's true passion - saving wildlife. She raised the idea with the WWF a few months later while a consultant at its Geneva headquarters. Why, she asked, did the WWF have a panda emblem but not a panda project? She was told that backdoor approaches had been made to China for years but that it was 'impossible'. Miss Nash disagreed. She believed China was ready for an upfront approach about conservation, with a solid proposal complete with timetable. British conservationist Sir Peter Scott, a WWF founder, and then WWF chief scientific adviser Lee Talbot, encouraged her to try. Other WWF officials cautioned that the attempt should be in an individual capacity 'in case it didn't work', said Miss Nash. So her six-page proposal began 'prepared independently on the initiative of Nancy Nash, an individual with a demonstrated interest in China and conservation'. It went on to say that she believed China was among the most conservation-conscious nations in the world and, with the expertise found in the WWF, could soon take a leadership role and become an example for other nations. She emphasised the cultural importance of shared knowledge. 'In those days anyone trying to get into China strictly for business, lacking any respect for history, arts or culture did not find a welcome,' said Miss Nash. 'Besides, natural history and cultural history are intertwined.' While some in Geneva doubted whether a private citizen based in Hong Kong could pull off such a coup, Miss Nash retorted with, 'be ready to come to Beijing at short notice if you want a panda project'. She raced back to Hong Kong and sought out Mr Wu. 'I knew I had T.C. to fall back on,' she said. For Mr Wu, the panda was a national treasure that must be preserved. He mobilised his highest connections in Beijing, including senior officials in the State Council. 'They trusted me and my judgment about Nancy,' he said. A major factor, added Miss Nash, was that Mr Wu was 'a political martyr' who had gone to prison for his country. The environmental and forestry officials to whom she took her proposal were 'brilliant, open-minded, committed conservationists', said Miss Nash. Good progress was made on the key points of an agreement. A week later, Sir Peter arrived in Beijing with a WWF delegation to formalise the relationship and a WWF-China committee was established. 'China went further than I'd dared to hope by also announcing it would join the most important international protocols and strategies for conservation and species protection,' said Miss Nash. Chinese officials were curious why Sir Peter, who designed the WWF's logo, had chosen the panda. 'I was there when Sir Peter explained it in his wonderful, humorous way,' said Miss Nash. 'He told them we needed an animal that was endangered - and they all nodded - we needed one that was beloved - there was more nodding - and we needed an animal whose image we could reproduce in black and white to save money. Of course, they all got that.' Mr Wu believes the panda project may never have happened without Miss Nash's determination and altruism. 'Nancy was working for the next generation, to leave something for the future. She was never thinking about herself,' he said. 'She did not aim for money or recognition, though she did become famous in China as 'Miss Panda'.' China's foremost panda biologist, Pan Wenshi, describes Miss Nash as the first person to bring the concept of animal protection into China. 'China's work in understanding nature was very slow until 1979,' said the director of the giant panda and wildlife conservation research centre at Beijing University. 'Nancy built a bridge for WWF to the Chinese government to initiate the panda protection project which kick-started China's environmental protection programme.' After the ground-breaking Beijing trip, events moved fast. Renowned New York-based naturalist George Schaller went to Sichuan in 1980 where he spent more than four years studying and documenting pandas in the wild with Chinese counterparts. It led to the construction of the research and conservation area and giant panda breeding facility at Wolong Miss Nash, said Dr Schaller, had 'shepherded the WWF people through the complicated process of making an agreement with China, something about which we all were quite ignorant. She monitored the situation, visited Wolong and kept in contact with the people that counted in Beijing and Wolong.' He believes China would have opened up to foreign research participation eventually. 'But Nancy made it happen then, so she had a major impact at the time not just on pandas but perceptions and attitudes in the country.' Miss Nash went on to help mainland governmental groups design a national charity that for the first time enabled Chinese citizens to make voluntary donations for wildlife conservation, starting with the giant panda. It became a model for other campaigns. In Hong Kong, she worked with the late philanthropist Sir Kenneth Fung Ping-fan to establish WWF Hong Kong. Miss Nash left WWF in 1985 to work full time on another trail-blazing conservation project, an educational programme called the Buddhist Perception of Nature, which builds on the natural affinity between Buddhism and protection of animals. At present, she is trying to ensure international recognition for the late Boonsong Lekagul of Thailand, whom she describes as 'the father of wildlife conservation in Asia'. While Miss Nash says she loves all animals, the fate of the giant panda remains her greatest passion. According to WWF China, there were 1,600 wild pandas at the last survey, in 2004. Dr Schaller says this did not include youngsters, so the actual figure may be closer to 2,000. 'The most serious threat is habitat destruction resulting in habitat fragmentation,' he said. Poaching was not a big issue now compared with a decade or so ago but still occurred. 'The [Sichuan] earthquake perhaps killed a few animals, did some habitat damage, but overall seems to have had limited impact,' Dr Schaller said. The Hong Kong government has committed HK$1.6 billion to help Sichuan province rebuild roads and other facilities in the Wolong Nature Reserve. But, in a bigger sense, Hong Kong's 'road to Wolong' was first built three decades ago. 'This was an opening that was magical, like the panda itself is magical,' Miss Nash said. 'It just came about at the right time, with the right help and the right people. I couldn't have done it without T.C.'