Sichuan’s Pandas, Preserved? (Part 1 of 2) —by Jinny Batterson
I have yet to see a giant panda in the wild. I’m not too disappointed— skilled naturalists and nature photographers have spent years, even decades, on quests for reclusive wild pandas, whose numbers are now estimated at only a thousand or two across the entire span of their range. What I have seen are three panda preserves in China—Wolong National Nature Reserve, Bifengxia Giant Panda Base, and the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, all in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan. I visited Wolong, the most remote, first. In the spring of 2004, I was in the provincial capital, Chengdu, getting ready for a multi-day tour to two national parks, with an extra day before that tour started. I approached our hotel’s day concierge, map and Mandarin phrase book in hand as back-up.
“Is it possible to visit the nature reserve at Wolong?” I asked, enunciating carefully.
“I check for you,” came the reply in only slightly accented English.
A couple of hours later, he phoned my room. “Visit is possible, but you must hire car and driver. If tomorrow you want to go, I find someone to take you.”
“Wonderful!” I gushed. “Please phone me again to tell me when I should meet the driver and how much I should pay.”
I’d heard about the reserve through the World Wildlife Fund, for whom the cuddly panda “bear” has become a symbol. Road conditions in many parts of Sichuan were iffy. It took several hours down muddy, narrow tracks with lots of twists and turns to reach the preserve. I’d just about given up finding it when I noticed a bilingual sign near the top of a small rise.
“Stop!” I requested. I read the English version. The expansive reserve encompassed nearly 500,000 acres, managed through a multi-decades partnership between international wildlife organizations and the Chinese government to try to stabilize or even increase endangered panda populations.
At the park entrance, the driver negotiated entrance fees, then finger-wrote the figure on his hand for me. I paid my fee and his, too. The preserve seemed designed more for research than for tourism. I listened intently as one of the scientists at the main panda enclosure explained parts of their program in Chinese, then in halting English.
Nearest the reserve’s entrance, a series of masonry cages resembled old-fashioned U.S. zoos—bars at the front, bare concrete floors, a small cave-like room at the back of each cell. Slightly further along in a different part of the valley were several large fenced natural areas, perhaps a quarter acre each. Some housed a single adult panda, others had groups of juveniles. One older adult male paced the front of his enclosure in such a consistent pattern that he’d worn a path in the grass. Every now and again he paused and stood on his hind legs, with front paws grasping the fence, looking out. Then he resumed his pacing. The juvenile playground had equipment human children would envy—ropes, ladders, inclines, and mounted wooden platforms. Panda cubs tussled and batted at each other, playing their version of “king of the mountain.”
The scientist explained a little about an experimental program to acclimate some of the captive-born pandas to life in the wild. (Through recent Internet research, I’ve found out that the first captive panda birth at Wolong occurred in 1986, with up to 16 births per year in subsequent years.) The first pre-release panda, later to be fitted with a radio collar, was still about a year from the end of his 3-year preparation period. I later learned, sadly, that this first wild release was not successful—the young adult male died about a year after he left the enclosed part of the reserve, most likely in a territorial dispute with a more-established wild male.
Even more tragically, the structures in the reserve at Wolong were almost totally destroyed by the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. Several reserve employees died, as did one of the captive pandas, crushed by the masonry wall of her cage. The damage, the obliteration of many surrounding bamboo groves, and the danger of subsequent earthquakes along an active geological fault made rebuilding on the original site unwise. After several years of construction and weather delays, a new center was opened in late 2012 in a different, more stable part of the reserve, near the village of Gengda.