At the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base
You can’t go to Chengdu without going to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base…or, at least, you shouldn’t! The Panda Base is over 100 hectares of land, bamboo, hills, devoted to pandas! It does research about them, and is one of the chief breeding grounds to perpetuate their species. It is set up for visitors to see pandas, young and older, depending on the time of year. Pandas are born in the fall, so there were no newborns while we were there the first weekend in June; the youngest were approaching adolescence.
It was a cool overcast day, with no rain, so it was actually a good day to view pandas, as it can get too hot for them. We hired an early taxi so we could get to the Base by 8 o’clock, and be there for the early feeding. We got our tickets and went in and made our way up a hill to the Number 1 Panda House. We walked around the outside of the building, saw a couple of single pandas, and a fellow who was washing out the outside of one enclosure. He waved to us and pointed to the next enclosure, where he went and dumped a load of bamboo, then opened the door from the indoor building, and out came three adult pandas. They scrambled over to the bamboo pile, got good seats, leaning back against trees, and started to munch.
We stayed and watched these three, for a long time. We were the only people there. We sketched the pandas in our sketchbooks. There is something that is “cartoon-like” in pandas. We understand why they have been used in cartoons, like Kung Fu Panda. We appreciated the pandas’ quiet chewing, and stripping back of the bamboo. Many of the pandas are solitary in their enclosures. These three seemed to get along. There was a little bickering, and we heard one panda whine at the others, but no real fighting. The whole experience was very peaceful and calm…perhaps that is what people love about pandas…they do not seem very aggressive. Young pandas may wrestle some, like puppies. They just seem very soothing. They eat, climb trees, and sleep most of the time. Sometimes they even sleep in trees!
This is why it is good to get there early for the feeding, because when they are done eating, most go to sleep.
We went from the Number 1 Panda House to the Number 2 Panda House, on to the Moonlight Nursery House, even though as we mentioned there weren’t any real baby pandas, as the ones born last year are approaching adolescence. There was a place (Sunshine Panda House) with some young pandas, but you had to pay RMB 1000 ($140) to go inside and have your picture taken holding the young panda! There was a line waiting to do this. We passed on it. Pandas are a huge tourist draw for China, and it knows this (thus, the high price to have a picture taken holding one!). You can see panda decorations on almost anything from cigarette packs to taxis.
Most of the panda breeding is done through artificial insemination. Even with that, scientists are not always sure the females are pregnant, as we heard in a film, “pregnant pandas don’t necessarily look any different from regular pandas. They both are big and round.’
The newborn babies are “hand-reared,” (taken care of by humans) for the most part, as pandas in captivity do not necessarily know how to care for their babies. Plus there are so few pandas, the Chinese want as many to survive as possible, so most babies are taken from their mothers, as soon as practicable, so the mother does not do harm to them.
There is something so very “cute” about pandas. The Base capitalizes on this with their panda signs.
In Chinese the name for giant panda is “da xiangmao,” which means “big bear-cat.” There was a lot of question whether a panda is really a bear, or part of the raccoon family, what with its markings. The Base also has red pandas, which definitely look like raccoons, in size and markings.
But, in the end, Pandas have been classified as bears. They are not really carnivorous any more… eating only bamboos. In order to survive on bamboo, they have to eat quite a lot. Pandas tend to not move too fast, they roll around a lot, and seem like “live stuffies.” They sit up and lie on their backs like a person, which makes them so endearing.
They also have what’s called a “panda thumb,” that makes it easy for them to hang onto a piece of bamboo, like a person would hold on to one. It’s not really a thumb. So many of their mannerisms seem like humans.
The panda is a true Chinese native, as its habitat is limited to 3 areas, all found in China. Because of this, China effectively “owns” all the pandas. We have heard that they are all “on loan,” and could be called back at any time…a panda “recall”? So, we better treat the pandas (and China) well!