Chilling with the Pandas in Chengdu, China
Featured destinations: China
Published 22 June 2016
Pandas: loveable black and white bears, famous for their kung fu skills and bamboo-munching ways. To see one up close, I headed for Chengdu, self-proclaimed ‘Panda Capital of the World’, and found this Chinese national icon to be far more laid-back than anticipated. ©Angela Griffin
Distracted by the sound of my camera, the panda glanced up from his bamboo feast, his big brown eyes staring straight into mine. He held my gaze for a second, and then went back to his lunch, barely noticing me. I was dismissed as one of hundreds to photograph him that day, just another in a long stream of fascinated tourists. He was far more fixated on chomping his way through an enormous mound of leaves, only stopping for the occasional scratch or to roll over and back again.
We had arrived in Chengdu earlier that morning, before the city had woken up, after a 15-hour journey from Xi’an. Wide awake, we grabbed some breakfast and decided to beat the crowds and get straight out to see the sights, particularly those of the four-pawed kind. I had been looking forward to watching pandas since we arrived in Beijing some weeks previously, and had heard that Chengdu was the place to do it.
Panda-spotting locations in China are limited: there’s virtually no chance of seeing one in the wild, so instead, wildlife enthusiasts have no choice but to head to a research centre or try Hong Kong or Beijing’s zoos. Until recently, Chengdu was home to the world-renowned China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong. Sadly, the complex was badly damaged by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, with one female panda killed by a falling wall. As a result, the remaining pandas were relocated to Bifengxia Panda Base in Ya’an. While work to repair the Wolong research centre continues, China’s prime panda hotspot is now the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
Visit Ya’an’s Bifengxia Panda Base on Round the World Experts’ Panda Adventure Journey.
The poor panda is not well equipped for procreation, with females having just one 24-hour period in which to conceive during the whole year. But by far their greatest threat is human action (or in some cases, inaction) leading to the destruction of their already scarce habitat. With the odds stacked against them, there just aren’t many wild pandas left; 1,864 according to the WWF. But the research centres are here to change all that, educating the public about the giant panda’s plight as well as breeding the bears using artificial insemination. There are signs of success too: numbers have increased significantly since the 1970s, so there’s hope for the panda yet.
Our first objective was to find the research centre. We tried to explain to our non-English speaking rickshaw driver where we wanted to go by pointing at a map in our guidebook. He looked at us quizzically, held his hands in the air like a bear and growled, bearing his teeth. We think he was trying to do a panda impression. Clearly Chengdu’s pandas were ferocious beasts not to be reckoned with. Panda snoozing while climbing in his enclosure ©Angela Griffin
Panda snoozing while climbing in his enclosure ©Angela Griffin
It was a couple of hours later, when eyeballing a disinterested adult male that I realised that his impression couldn’t have been further from the truth. Held in large, cage-free enclosures filled with trees, toys and swings, the research centre’s pandas were incredibly lazy, sleeping for most of the time, no doubt lulled into a soporific state by copious amounts of bamboo. One even fell asleep while climbing up the side of his enclosure, much to our amusement. Far more energetic were the red pandas, small fox-like creatures and distant relatives of the more familiar giant panda. They scampered about the place and generally caused mayhem for the keepers.
Red panda ©Angela Griffin
After eyeballing the bamboo-guzzling panda, we went to see the cubs. Little more than six months old, they were having the time of their lives playing with each other and climbing trees and stairs and then falling off them again. Their exuberance was infectious, and I loved their tufty black ears and expressive faces. After sharing in their joy at life for a while we went inside to the nursery where eight tiny panda babies, about 30cm long, wriggled and snoozed peacefully in a play pen while making adorable squeaking noises. In a dimly-lit corner of the room, a tiny newborn was snuggled up warm in an incubator, curled up like a ball of black and white fluff. Unfortunately photography of the babies was banned because bright light hurts their eyes, so this endearing image remains purely in my memory.
So those ferocious pandas turned out to be a docile lot. But active or not, it was a privilege to get so close to such a magnificent beast, especially one so rare. I just hope the panda’s numbers continue to increase so that, in future, close panda encounters like mine might not be so unusual.
Visit the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding on Round the World Experts’ Pandas & Mountains of Sichuan Journey.