When I was recently in Chengdu for our co-operation with the Qingyang Research Institute, I had some spare time and was fortunate enough to be able to visit the Chengdu Panda Research Base, a non-profit research and breeding facility. This was my first time in Chengdu and I had promised myself that if I ever got the chance to visit Chengdu, I would make sure I saw China’s Heritage Symbol. In order to rescue and protect the endangered giant panda, the Research Base was established in 1987 for research, breeding, education and conservation. Their aim is to improve artificial reproduction procedures to increase the giant panda population.
I booked a tour from my hotel and it turned out I was the only participant, so I had to pay a little extra but it was well worth it. As soon as I had finished my breakfast in the hotel courtyard, a woman turned up and called out “Let’s Go Panda!” She was my guide and didn’t speak a word of English but she was excellent and just what I needed.
We arrived at 8am, which was perfect as the pandas had just woken up and were enjoying their bamboo breakfast. My guide prompted me with a brisk pace and exclamations of Come on!, Big Panda! and Baby Panda! They are not terribly active animals and the best time to see them is in the morning. I kept my expectations low as usual not to get disappointed, but was truly amazed by the number of cute, amusing, playful and active bears I saw. They were out and about chomping on bamboo and playing about. Some were climbing trees, others were just idling about, and one decided to playfully push his mate down a drain (where s/he blissfully kept munching on bamboo).
The Giant Panda is an endangered species, and the number of pandas in the wild is less than 2,000. They are native to China and live in the western central areas; mainly in Sichuan province, but also in neighbouring provinces of Shaanxi and Gansu.
The reason for their dwindling number is, as always, the loss of habitat due to the needs of us humans. Pandas live on tender stems, shoots, and leaves of bamboo. Because bamboo is low in nutrition, one panda needs to eat about 12 to 38 kg of bamboo a day! The continued population growth in China slowly and steadily depletes the bamboo forests and replaces them with cities or additional farming areas.
Very sadly, pandas are also susceptible to poaching, or illegal killing, as their dense fur carries a high price in the black markets in the Far East.
Pandas are also not terribly effective breeders, as the female is only fertile 2-3 days per year, and can only carry a litter of 1-2 cubs. They are not motivated to breed in captivity (who would be?) so efforts are being made to ensure a vast habitat and a natural environment at the base.
At the panda base I saw a couple of one-week old cubs in incubators. They were pink and hairless, and not particularly cute: a bit like newly-hatched chicks with no feathers. But it was great to see the additions and know that numbers are increasing.
Further along in the park, though, was the panda kindergarten, where the most adorable cubs of 6 or so months old or so were being socialised by a trainer (I REALLY want to be a Panda Laoshi at Panda school) and practiced climbing up and down a structure similar to what you may find in children’s playgrounds.
Some interesting facts about the Giant Panda:
There are many names for the panda in Chinese, such as maoxiong (catlike bear), xiongmao (bearlike cat), huaxiong (banded bear) and, perhaps the most popular, daxiongmao (great bearcat). One theory is that the English name comes from the Nepali word nigalya-ponya, which means eater of bamboo.
During the Ming Dynasty, it was believed that the panda’s skin and fur could prevent tumours and plague, and that panda urine was a cleansing drink.
With its black and white fur, the giant panda is considered a physical manifestation of the Yin-Yang relationship. The panda’s placid nature demonstrates the Yin and Yang balance of peace and harmony.
It was chosen for the 2008 Olympics as a symbol for friendship and peace.
The panda features as the logo of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF).
I was delighted to see the work done at the Base: the organisation; the size, the greenery, the birdsong; and the excellent facilities for education and ensuring the survival of the Giant Pandas. On their website they pledge that when population levels have reached desired levels, they will shift their efforts toward helping giant pandas adapt to their natural habitats so they can be released into the wild and repopulate their native homeland. I look forward to the day.