Thursday, July 5, 2007


What a wonderful morning! We saw pandas, and pandas, and more pandas, all at the Panda Research Base & Breeding Center in a suburb of Chengdu. This was unlike any other place I've seen animals in China -- no cages, no glass between us and the animals. The enclosures seemed quite natural, and were clearly set up for the animals to get enough stimulation. I didn't see any schizoid-animal behavior that I always see in Chinese zoos. It was even better than the panda enclosure at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. And the pandas were simply fantastic.

There’s another place to see pandas in Sichuan Province – the Wolong Nature Preserve and Panda Breeding Center, but it’s about 30 km from Chengdu. I figured 30 km wouldn’t be a problem, but I’m told the roads are terrible, that Wolong is in the mountains and very remote, and it would take 3 hours to get there. It didn’t seem worth putting the girls through that long ride when there was this panda center nearby. And I think it was the right decision; Wolong might be wonderful, but so was this place. (An FYI, though – we rented a car (with driver) because we were told there might not be cabs there for our return trip to the hotel. Wrong! There were tons of licensed cabs.)

After entering the grounds, we were off on our search for pandas. The girls were practically giddy, and there was a palpable sense of excitement as we walked through bamboo tunnels to find the panda enclosures.

We headed first for the adult panda enclosure, and soon found the pandas. We deliberately headed to the panda center in the morning, because we were told they were friskier then when it is feeding time. And sure enough, they were busily eating bamboo.

By coincidence, there was a National Geographic special about panda on TV last night (we have English channels – yahoo!), so we learned a lot about pandas, including the fact that adult pandas eat about 40 pounds of bamboo each day!

Pandas have to each so much because they are apparently carnivores who adapted to eating bamboo when their habitat shrank and the animals they fed on disappeared. So their stomachs can digest only about 1/5th of the bamboo they eat. That’s why they eat practically all the time.

Look how this one seems to be grasping the bamboo leaves in his paw much like a human would with the hand. Another panda adaptation – a wrist bone has developed into a kind of opposable thumb to make it easier to grab and eat bamboo.

When the pandas weren’t eating, they were sleeping! (So much for finding them frisky in the morning! Some might well have been stuffed for all the activity we saw out of them.)

The two sleeping above are panda babies, around a year old. They were in an enclosure called the “Panda Kindergarten.”

And it sure looked like a kindergarten, with kiddie toys at the ready – if the kinder ever wake up from their naps! (They didn’t while we watched.)

We then made our donation (1,000 RMB – ouch!) to take pictures with a baby panda. The girls were so excited – but first we had to put on shoe covers and the girls had to wash their hands and put on gloves. Zoe had to be swathed in a blue robe – Maya was deemed too young to hold the panda and so didn't need a robe.

Then they brought out the “baby” panda, and Zoe’s first reaction was as I expected – she shrank back and slid to the far end of the bench! I was really proud that she stuck, though, I half-expected her to run for the hills!

She even got brave enough to touch the panda!

She was still pretty unsure, and no way was she going to hold it! She expected the baby to be the size of a Chihuahua, not a St. Bernard. Maya then joined her, and you can tell by her smile that she’s excited – but you can also see from her body language that she's still a little apprehensive.

Maya was also willing to pet the panda.

The panda was far more interested in the tender young bamboo the worker was feeding it than in two little girls who wanted to play. And of course we didn’t have long for our “photo op.” A little more time and the girls might have warmed up to the panda a bit more – and the panda would STILL have been more interested in the bamboo, I bet!

I’m glad we did it – the money was for a good cause, to support the Research Center’s work. And the girls are still talking about “our panda.”

After seeing the black and white Giant Pandas, we toured the red panda enclosures. If you’re not familiar with red pandas, I think they look more like raccoons than pandas. (Maya thought it looked like a fox.)

They even have striped tails like raccoons. Even though there is little family resemblance, their closest relatives are the Giant Pandas.

The red pandas were much more active, pacing about their enclosure and vanishing into the foliage only to reappear in another place later. The girls were fascinated – much more interesting than just eating and sleeping. Still, they passed on the opportunity to hold one for the piddling fee of 50 yuan.

The panda center was quite park-like, with lots of bamboo, flowers and butterflies. We followed this pretty blue-black butterfly all through one section of the park, to Maya’s delight.

Look at that long proboscis, all rolled up.

The butterfly led us to Swan Lake, where it seemed that black swans outnumbered white swans 3 to 1. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen black swans before.

We had a great time watching the pandas, and the girls have deemed it the best thing that has happened since we’ve been in China. In fact, the girls were head over heels in love with the pandas!


Anonymous said...

IS 1000 RMB=$125 ?

mimifrancoise said...

Oh, what fun! I am really surprised Zoe got that close to the panda. How exciting for the girls...and for you to see them have fun.

Anonymous said...

I just want to reach out and scratch those fuzzy panda heads!

Elizabeth in KS

Anonymous said...

Wow! Wait 'till my son age 5 sees this...he adores pandas! Chengdu will be one of our first travel destinations as we have been promising. So glad to hear it's worth it.

A.M.B.A. in MI

Chinazhoumom said...

We went there the day after receiving the children - on the adoption of my daughter - it was a great place - not many people in December - but so well kept!

The Pandas were sooo cute!
carol & kimberly

Anonymous said...

Malinda, your pictures bring back such incredible memories from our 2005 trip to ChengDu. The breeding center hasn't changed except for the Kindergarten - there was no sign and no toys back then! Oh, yes, the donation has changed. However, I would pay it all again as the money does go directly to the breeding center.

I think you made the right choice in going to the breeding center rather than the preserve. Our guide told us that the preserve is vast in size and after traveling for 3 hours you will get there mid-day (lazy panda time) and you might not even be able to find/see a panda in the large preserve. The breeding center had 40 pandas in '05 and we, like you, saw many. I know your daughters will not forget the experience - I know mine won't.

By the way, what kind of camera and lense are you using. Your photographs turn out beautifully. I may need a similar camera before we return to China in '09 for our next adventure.

Mom to a Guangxi Girl

Sophie's Mom said...

What beautiful panda pictures!!! I love the pics of the baby panda on the bench w/the girls. Amazing!

Vicki Leihgeber said...

What fabulous photos of the girls and the pandas! Can't wait to show Jenna and Ally in the morning. I have loved following your've done such an awesome job with the journaling. Don't know how you manage to do so much! Zoe and Maya seem to be thriving. Not much longer now until you are home...

Anonymous said...

Did you pet the pandas yourself or were only your daughters the brave? I forgot to add before that I was amazed that they are not soft and fuzzy but have a bristly type fur. I guess it is good for the humid/wet climate.

windycitymamma said...

So cool! What an amazing family you are!
I CAN'T WAIT to travel to China with my son - I'm taking notes!



On said...

wow tooooooooo cute!!! I would like to take a look of the pandas too!

I love Panda... and just bought a Panda Bag from the following Blogshop:

Nice to meet you.