The animal is puzzling. It does little to merit its popularity. In the wild, it spends all of its waking time wandering aimlessly to find food. Though it is a carnivore, there is little game where it lives, and the panda is not quick enough to catch it anyway. So it eats bamboo, and since its digestive system is not intended to break down plant matter efficiently, it must eat enormous quantities to stay alive.Michael Kiefer, 1990 Sandiego Reader
I’d read recently an article about the hardships Ruth Haskins and her American Chinese guide, Quentin Young, had in bringing back the first live panda to the US in the 1930s. Their stories of tracking China’s “national treasure” are entertaining and hard to fathom in this day and age of modern technology. Binge reading about their exploits, and those of others like Teddy Roosevelt’s sons who’ve expended much effort in trying to find these elusive bears, reinvigorated my dream to see the animals in their home province.
Before this trip, I’d seen pandas previously at the Beijing Zoo and at the National Zoo in Washington, DC. The panda enclosure in Beijing was incredibly sad back when I went in 2010 – basically a pit surrounded by a fence. I witnessed visitors throwing trash at the lone panda. It was a heartbreaking sight, as were the dismal conditions of other animals in captivity there…I wanted to go to the Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base, in part, because I heard they were much more humane in their care of the pandas. I wasn’t able to go last year, but when I came across round trip airplane tickets to Chengdu for under $200 this year, it felt like the stars aligned, telling me that this was my chance to finally visit Chengdu’s most famous Panda reserve.
Pandas are native to the forests of Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu Provinces. As of 2017, there are about 1,864 giant pandas living in the wild in China, 70% of which are distributed about sanctuaries in Sichuan Province (designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006), and more than 225 currently living in captivity. Besides the Giant Panda Base, there are three others around Chengdu: Dujiangyan Panda Base (one may volunteer here), Bifenxia Panda Base (the largest), and Wolong Panda Research Center.
I took Line 3 on the Chengdu Metro to Panda Avenue (熊猫大道站). Outside Exit A, about a 100 meter walk, there’s a free bus stop “DiTie XiongMao DaDao” that’ll take you to see the pandas. One may also take bus 198A. Take the bus going towards “YinXingYuan GongJio” and then get off at 8th stop named “Xiong Mao Jidi (熊猫基地站).” The Base’s official website has more options for those wanting to come by bus from elsewhere in town.
I ended up taking a Didi (Chinese Uber) right outside the metro to the main gate of the Base as the free buses right outside the metro were insanely packed and had long queues. I would recommend not coming on a holiday or weekend, if you can help it!
Entry into the Base is 58 yuan ($10) and free for children under 1.3m (4.3ft). I’m told it’s a bit cheaper to buy your ticket online. Yet, funny enough, the line for those who buy the tickets in person was much, much shorter when I went, so I got into the park fairly quickly after buying the ticket at the counter.
Opening hours of the Base are 7:30am to 6pm April through October and 8am to 5:30pm November through March.
The best time to go is between 9am and 10am as pandas are more active for breakfast and then tend to nap after.
The Research Base
The Giant Panda Breeding and Research Base (大熊猫繁育基地) in Sichuan Province is one of 40 official panda reserves in China and is home to about 120 giant pandas. It started as a non-profit research and breeding facility back in 1987 with just six pandas. In 1993, the base opened its gates to the public to spread public awareness of about endangered animals and the environment. It consists of 92 acres, but is set to expand to 500 more acres in the future. It’s pretty awesome that they’ve birthed over a hundred pandas through the years!
The base is located 18 km (11 miles) north of Chengdu’s city center and focuses on maintaining an optimal environment that simulates the natural habitat of pandas with the ultimate goal of encouraging population growth. They also treat injured or sick pandas. Other endangered species are raised here, too, including red pandas and black neck cranes.
It was a bright hot, sunny day when I visited over the Qingming (Tomb Sweeping) holiday last month. The Base itself was beautiful, with bamboo stalks (over 10,000!) and flowering trees walling off the walking paths. I was a bit disappointed, though, expecting it to be less crowded as people are supposed to journey to clean family tombs on that holiday; I learned later than many families now clean tombs early in order to have free time for themselves on this day off.
The panda enclosures still felt like a zoo, but were pretty open and spacious. One could see the animals eating, playing with each other, and sleeping the day away. I got to witness a bunch of pandas eating bamboo, small adolescent pandas climbing trees, and even one cute giant panda falling and rolling downhill (twice!).
Aside with the animal enclosures, one may visit the museum and research facility. Inside the museum are three main exhibits: in the Giant Panda Hall, the Butterfly Hall, and the Vertebrate Hall. There is the usual wacky examples of bad taxidermy found at most Chinese museums and detailed explanations of the formation of Sichuan Province’s biodiversity.
Overall, I’m glad I finally made it out to the Giant Panda Base! The only venue I wasn’t able to visit was the “Sunshine Nursery” for baby pandas since it was so crowded. I’m not sad, however, as new born pandas kind of weird me out (they look too much like naked mole rats at that stage). I also didn’t hold a panda – so expensive! It’s around $300 dollars plus you have to bring an official health examination form. I’m content to just watch them from afar.
Fun facts I learned about pandas:
- Pandas are technically carnivores, but bamboo can constitute as much as 99 per cent of their diet. In the wild, pandas will occasionally eat meat in the form of birds, rodents or carrion.
- They must eat from 26 to 84 pounds bamboo every day! a formidable task for which they use their enlarged wrist bones that function as opposable thumbs.
- Since, pandas do not hibernate, they never make permanent shelter abodes and instead, prefer changing their nesting grounds. They sleep in the hollows of trees or tiny caves. They also try to keep moving higher up in altitude as and when it gets warmer.
- It’s also really difficult for male and female pandas to actually commence the act of mating as female pandas only ovulate once a year. Not only that, but the window that a male panda has to inseminate the female while she has an egg ready to go is only about 36 to 40 hours.
- A “normal” reproductive rate is one offspring every two years, and female pandas are only fertile for 2-3 days a year. It’s no wonder so many early conservation efforts failed (for lack of species understanding).
- Artificial insemination of female pandas has them splayed out on their backs.
- While the modern red panda territory extends from central China into the Eastern Himalayas and on towards Nepal, the first red panda fossil was found in the United Kingdom! In 1888, a fossil molar and lower jaw of a cougar-sized red panda was discovered. More fossils have been found in Spain, Eastern Europe, and even the United States. Around 5 million years ago, Tennessee was home to a giant red panda that probably went extinct with the arrival of raccoons.
- A newborn giant panda is about the size of a stick of butter—about 1/900th the size of its mother—but can grow to up to 330 pounds as an adult.
- Pandas are pigeon-toed; in other words, they walk with their front paws turned inward. From what I’ve witnessed, they run rather fast!
They’re no longer on the endangered species list! As of September 2016, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature downgraded the species to “Vulnerable.”