Such was my desire to see the beautiful Panda Bears at the Giant Panda Research Centre, (based in the city of Chengdu, in south western China’s Sichuan Province), that we travelled for 12 hours on a bullet train from Guilin to Chengdu city. These cute bears are now a highly protected species under the State’s laws. Pandas that you see in zoos throughout the world are now “loaned” to these zoos by the Chinese Government for a king’s ransom! The reason for such strict laws surrounding the protection of the bears are tenfold. But one such reason is that historically, famous socialites and celebrities would pay huge money to buy these bears to bring them from China to the Western world as fashion accessories.
One such case was that of a very famous socialite, Ruth Harkness back in 1936. The story goes that the day before Christmas Eve, a giant panda appeared in New York City. Its name was Su Lin. Two months earlier, the animal had been taken from its jungle home, fretful and in distress, and transported halfway around the world on airplanes and ships, wrapped inside blankets and baskets. * “No panda had ever survived a trip outside of East Asia. In the weeks before Su Lin’s arrival, American newspapers reported each detail about his trip across the Pacific.From the first moment Su Lin was carried out into Grand Central Station and reporters instantly trumpeted the news of America’s first panda, the celebrity clung to his coat. He clung too: to Ruth Harkness, the widowed socialite-turned-explorer, who went to China without any wilderness experience, vowed to complete her late husband’s hunt for a panda, and returned triumphant, nursing Su Lin from a baby bottle filled with instant milk. Harkness’s journey sparked a “happy furore” across the USA. A photo taken of this Panda with Ruth Harkness was the first of a live panda ever published in a newspaper, The New York Times. The world became hooked – a Panda Bear frenzy ensued and in the 1930’s became a cultural phenomenon. Many explorers flocked to China to try and capture this much sought after bear”. A Panda was worth its weight and more in gold! (*Link to this article below)
Because of the bears’ timid and gentle nature, they could easily be kept in the celebrities’ and socialites’ homes and were frequently paraded at public events as status symbols. It beggars belief that such cruelty to such a beautiful animal was tolerated!
The Pandas are the symbol of China and once you step off the train in Chengdu you are left in no doubt how much the Chinese love and take pride in their Panda Bears. Huge advertising boards and towering statues of Pandas are sprawled in every corner of the city. Even our accommodation had cuddly toy Pandas sprawled across the bed. Pictures and photos of them hung in every available wall space in our room.
I have to admit that I was quite cynical about whether this Research Centre was ethical in the context of confining bears at the base for experimental and research purposes, away from their natural habitat. My thinking was that even if these bears were multiplying in the artificial environment of the Research Centre, what purpose would this serve in protecting these beautiful animals. If they have become dependent on humans for their very existence and cannot fend for themselves when released into the wild, is it right to be increasing their numbers and keeping them captive in Chengdu, or any of the other 26 Research Centres in China? The question being, should we continue to reproduce them or risk leaving them to nature to fend for themselves in trying to survive in their natural habitat? I had read stories about the failed attempts to release Pandas back into their natural habitat. Two bears in particular, named Xue Xue and Xiang Xiang, had been released and sadly were found dead within months of them being released. And so, the purpose of my visit was to find out more about the Centre and educate myself about the plight of these adorable creatures.
The Giant Panda Research Centre in Chengdu was set up in 1987, for the protection of this cute and cuddly endangered species. The base is a non-profit research and breeding facility for giant pandas and other rare animals. It started with 6 giant pandas that were rescued from the wild. To date, it has reared over 300 pandas. Its aim is to be a world-class research facility, conservation education center, and international educational tourism destination, raising awareness about the plight of these spectacularly cute creatures. To multiply their numbers and experiment with releasing them gradually back into the wild in Chengdu.
So what did I learn? Well I learned how little I actually knew about these creatures, other than the visual cuteness of them.
The reason that these incredibly interesting creatures have become endangered is basically down to us, i.e. humans, and our disregard for the natural habitat of the vulnerable animal kingdom. With the population of China increasing rapidly over the years, more and more land was needed to meet the demand of a growing population, both for domestic and business ventures. The Panda Bears’ natural home became smaller and smaller with the expanse of the surrounding cities. They were pushed into smaller compounds where their natural (and only) food resource, bamboo, was almost diminished to the point that it could not sustain the number of Pandas depending on it. You see Pandas, unlike other bears, don’t hibernate and are not carnivores. They only eat bamboo, and lots of it! 99% of the bears’ diet consists of bamboo. They eat for at least 12 hours a day and can shift up to 12kgs of bamboo daily. Their natural life expectancy in the wild is approximately 20 years. You can imagine then, how much bamboo is needed to ensure that they can survive a lifetime! There are currently just under 2,000 Panda Bears still remaining in the world. 70% of these are living in China.
To add to the complication of the scarcity of bamboo, the bears are extremely fussy about what bamboo they will eat. I learned that there are truckloads of bamboo delivered to the Panda Base each day and it is not unusual for Panda Bears to refuse to eat much of what’s on offer, wanting a different batch to taste before settling on one.
They are also extremely difficult to breed. Pandas are by their very nature are solitary and unsociable animals. The male bears much prefer to laze about and eat bamboo than to copulate with their female mates. Despite numerous attempts at the base to encourage the males to engage with the females, including games to strengthen their back legs so they can mount the female easier, the males don’t get any further than a few lame attempts at mating before they lose interest and go back to snacking on their bamboo. The scientists at the Centre have resorted to anaesethising both male and female Pandas to perform basic artificial insemination of the females, in the hope that a female Panda will become pregnant and therefore add to their numbers in captivity. A risky process, but without this intervention, the number of bears would most certainly reduce further. The female Panda is also only fertile for about 2 days each year, so timing is of the essence for artificial insemination. Even when the Panda bear becomes pregnant, the pregnancy cannot be confirmed until literally minutes before a birth. A pregnancy can last from 11 weeks up to 5 and a half months, and there is no way of knowing how long any individual pregnancy will last. Most Pandas also give birth to twins! So, once the female Panda is inseminated, she must be treated as though she is pregnant, whether she is or is not. In many instances she is not, and the whole process begins again. Frustrating for the researchers and scientists at the base for sure, but they keep on trying, unwavered, regardless.
Then, when the optimum result happens and the baby Pandas are born, sometimes unexpectedly, it is here that you will see the dedication and love and care that the researchers, scientists and keepers at Chengdu have for these bears. One such scientist is quoted as saying that she sees the Pandas more than her own family because of the amount of time she must dedicate to the rearing of these tiny babies. The mother Panda will only have the capacity to care for one of the twin bears, for a maximum period of 18 months. The second bear is removed from the mother by the team of carers at the base and placed in the equivalent of a baby incubation unit at a maternity hospital. The baby bear is nursed in the very same way that a premature baby is, fed and changed, kept snuggled up in a little blanket and monitored continuously. It is pink and almost rat-like at birth, until the soft downy black and white fur begins to cover its tiny body within a matter of weeks. The scientists have experimented recently with one set of twin panda babies by alternating the bears with the mother. The mother Panda in this experiment was totally unaware that the researchers were alternating the twin Pandas in order to give them both time with their mother. Both pandas survived and thrived and are one of the many success stories at the base. In time, the healthy baby bears are placed in a “play pen” with each other for company. It is definitely the highlight of the tour of the base, to see these beautiful tiny cute bears trying to walk and play with one another. Little balls of black and white fur rolling around playfully with each other, and others not yet old enough to participate in the activity around them.
As we made our way around, we came across young Panda Bears, playing happily with their “friends” in relatively small enclosures fitted with glass panels so tourists could enjoy watching and taking photos of them from a distance. Some of the bears clearly were not amused at being on show and sat with their backs to the glass frontage. Others who were a bit more mischievous were quite happy to “show off” for the tourists by playing tug of war with each other and rolling around, much to the squeals of delight from us tourists. The preservation of the bears, I also learned, takes precedence over anything else, including the tourist industry that the centre attracts. Money made from this industry is re-invested into the Centre for the continuation of the work that’s carried out here.
In the main, however, the majority of the bears on display on the day of our visit, were doing what Pandas do best. Eating and sleeping! They get very little energy from the bamboo shoots so they spend a lot of their time sleeping between meals. Having been surrounded by so many wonderful Buddhists here in China, I think if their belief system is true about Karma, and given how much I love my sleep, I want to come back in my next life as a Panda Bear! 😱…. (be careful what you ask the Universe for I’m thinking 🙏🙏😁)
And so, the question of whether this was an ethical way of reproducing the bears remained with me. Well, the answer was obvious once I learned a little bit more about this base. So, what’s the alternative? How do we protect an endangered species if we don’t take risks of rearing them in a somewhat artificial environment (abeit the staff at the base go to great lengths to ensure that the environment is as close to their natural habitat that they can provide. But, it’s just not!) and risk releasing them back into the wild? The researchers have a target of breeding over 300 bears before they begin the process of releasing more bears, and they have now reached this number. The next stage of the project will be to gradually release them under strict supervision to the surrounding hills in Chengdu where they have secured hundreds of acres of land for this purpose. I understand that this will happen very soon. And then the next question is, how do we measure the success of this venture? It is inevitable that there will be casualties, but if it increases the number of Panda bears in the wild in the longer term and they don’t become extinct it’s most certainly worth the years and years of painstaking work on the part of the Chengdu Centre.
Suffice to say that I too have caught “Panda Fever” that no inoculations I received before leaving Ireland will protect me from 🐼🐼🐼🐼
Another lesson that I learned during my time here. We need to take stock, as human beings on this delicate planet, of the impact of deforestation on our wildlife. Chengdu is just one Centre trying to undo the damage that we have already done to these beautiful bears! Just one species out of god knows how many that man is driving to endangerment and extinction!
And the question of ethical or unethical? Only time will tell!
(Note: To travel around China on public transport/bullet trains, as we did, costs very little, relative to the cost of public transport anywhere else in the world. For the return train journey from Guilin to Chengdu (almost 2,500 kms) it cost less than €70 each, and an entrance fee of c. €8 each which includes a transfer bus from the train station to the Panda Research Centre. Accommodation costs are little or nothing, so for a two day trip to Chengdu it cost less than €200, all in for both of us – not bad for such a fantastic experience)
THE GIANT BUDDHA STATUE – LESHAN, CHINA
Before leaving for our return journey back to Guilin (Yangshuo), we decided to take a quick day trip to see the world’s largest and tallest pre-modern stone statue of the Giant Buddha, based nearby in Leshan, in the Sichuan Province, only an hour’s train ride away. The Buddha statue is carved out of a cliff face that lies where two rivers meet (The Min and Dadu River). Work began on the statue as far back as 713 AD by a Chinese Buddhist Monk named Hai Tong. He hoped that by carving out a Buddha in the rock that it would calm the rough waters that caused havoc with ships travelling down the river. In fact the amount of stone removed during the construction which fell into the rivers altered the currents resulting in a safer passage for the ships passing by. Following his death, the Monks continued the work on the sculpture, completing it in 803 AD. A total of 90 years to create this spectacular piece of work!
We began our trip by taking a boat out along the river so we could get a complete view of the Buddha, before returning to climb 71 meters down the giant rock from the head, to the feet of this giant monument. It took us almost two hours to reach the bottom where Buddhist Monks were gathered in prayer. The large toenail on one foot could easily seat a few people. It is a sight to behold and was certainly a bit overwhelming trying to take in the sheer enormity of it and the wonder of how on earth these Monks persisted with this project for 90 years and succeeded in achieving such a perfect end result. Proof that the power of a belief system knows no boundaries and can achieve anything!
Climbing back up the steps to the head of the Buddha in seriously high temperatures left me struggling. Gasping for breath as I climbed, I glanced up briefly, only to see three smiling Tibetan Buddhist Monks seated at a resting place along a gap in the mountain. Seeing me in difficulty they kindly moved and offered me a seat beside them so I could catch my breath before going any further. After spending a bit of time trying to communicate with them, one of them whipped out a mobile phone and asked if they could take a photo with us. I was gobsmacked! Here was me, in total awe of these guys, and the tables turned quicker than I had time to blink, with us smiling away getting selfies with them. Selfies with Tibetan Monks at the worlds largest Buddha – ya just couldn’t make it up 😂😂😂.
And so, we returned to our “Panda” accommodation in Chengdu to get ready for our return journey to Guilin, and onwards to Yangshuo. Yet another part of China ticked off our list of places to see, Pandas and Buddhas – Check ✅. With just over one more week left in China, our next place to visit; the famous Rice Fields in Ping’an, just outside Guilin where we plan to try out the local delicious rice dishes and also meet the “Minority People” who live in the mountains and valleys of the area.
(Note: A day trip from Chengdu to Leshan (return) cost less than €20 each, which included return train fare and entrance fee into the Buddha Statue climbing area).