Chengdu and Pandamonium

The IUCN Redlist lists Giant Pandas as vulnerable and the Red Panda as endangered.   I was nervous about visiting the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.  Unlike Sepilok it had more a zoo format, and I don’t like caging animals up.  I understand the advantages and the positive conservation efforts, but it still makes me uneasy.

A red panda

We navigated our way up the bamboo allies to the Red Panda area.   “The look like red raccoons” Kylie said.  They did.  There were slightly larger with a longer tail, but they were curious and playful.   “Look Dad, the baby ones don’t know how to eat bamboo until they area 6-7 years old.” Kylie showed me an informational placard.  We watched the red panda go up and down trees and dart way from view area when the noise became too loud.  The keepers came out and dropped some food off for them, and they became more bold.  I really enjoyed learning about these guys.  I was upset that my camera wasn’t working well and we were a little rushed to beat the crowds, so we moved onward.

Red pandas are excellent climbers

We saw some Pandas next. They were asleep in the trees in various enclosures.   However when we happened upon the adult panda enclosure, I found them much larger than the Pandas I’d seen before and very playful between naps.  They eat mostly bamboo and this low calorie diet keeps them from being super active.

A giant panda eating bamboo
With a low calorie diet, giant pandas sleep a lot.
Giant pandas are also good climbers and sleep in trees

The center was massive.  It had room for three major enclosures for adults, four enclosures for sub-adults, and two nurseries.   The enclosures were very much habitat oriented, but were large.  “I really like all the room they have” Sharleen commented.  It was true, there was quite a bit of space for them to roam and explore.

We toured all the major Panda Paddocks and nurseries.  Some of the enclosures were empty.  In others pandas sleeping, eating, or playing.    After each nursery there were large souvenir shops to cash in on the emotional high.  They were cute!  Both Kylie and Alyssa expressed wanted jobs were they could pet and cuddle with Pandas daily.

There was a long line to see this youngster

Even though it started raining, and it was a weekday after school had started, the crows had started.  There were long queues for the people mover carts for those who didn’t want to walk. There were still a lot of people. Crowds of people formed traffic jams near active pandas.

Oh no, here come the crowds
The Mongol sightseeing hoards

Enclosures displayed sponsors proudly.  And the videos we watched showed how this center has struggled to get to the point it is at today.    We opted out of a  volunteer opportunity to shovel panda poop and feed them in their cages for an extra $200-$300 per person.  Commercializing the experience to maximize cash flow was very apparent.

There were several learning stations where people could watch videos to learn more about Pandas.  We especially enjoyed the interactive Panda Discovery Museum.  Kylie and Alyssa learned about Panda matchmaking, genetics, and artificial insemination.

The computerized interactive Panda Discovery Center captivated Alyssa and Kylie

There were several facts that I learned in the museum:

  •  The West learned about Giant Pandas in 1869.
  • Ruth Harkness was the first westerner to export a live Panda in 1937
  • China gifted Pandas to support alliances (North Korea and the Soviet Union), and to forge alliances (to USA in 1972).
  • As the Pandas became scarce, they changed their policy to a “loan only” policy, and now only lend seminal fluid.
  • The research institute has 195 live pandas, although people only see about 40.
  • Even though a majority of the pandas come from four original male pandas, they have beat the inbreeding conundrum by developing technology to freeze seminal fluid and trade with other zoos.
  • The institute is on its way of meeting it’s goal of 0% infant mortality. (Pandas who have twins, usually just focus on one offspring as that is all they can manage.  To beat this the institute uses a cub-swapping technique switching out the cubs every 12 hours to ensure both cubs get their mother’s milk).
  • The gestational length for Pandas is between 11 weeks and 11 months.  (Wow, that is quite a spread).
  • Scientists have been unable to determine if a panda is pregnant until she is almost ready to give birth.
  • Although most pandas, at the institute, are born in the institute, some have been rescued from the wild.

With less than 1000 Pandas in the wild and their habitat threatened, I wondered how creating more captive Pandas would help the wild population, especially since they don’t release them.  The stated goal number one of the institute was to reach 300 captive pandas.  Their next goal is to develop a process of on how to release them into the wild.  In watching the BBC documentary on Chendu Research Base (Click Here). A similar question is posited.  How will animals, who have received so much support from keepers and staff, sexual aid (in terms of reproduction), and offspring rearing possible exist on their own in the wild.

There were informational helpers around to answer logistical questions, however I would have liked to hear a trainer or keeper’s response to this question.

Despite my reservations, viewing the work being done at Chengdu gave me hope.

Once again it is evidence that when people really put their mind, money, and collective will to a thing it can be accomplished.

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