Sichuan’s Pandas, Preserved? (Part 2 of 2)

Sichuan’s Pandas, Preserved? (Part 2 of 2)     —by Jinny Batterson

During the summer of 2008, pandas and staff from the Wolong National Nature Reserve who’d survived the Wenchuan earthquake were temporarily relocated to the Bifengxia Giant Panda Base, near the small city of Ya’an.  There I had several chances to visit in 2008-2009 while teaching at a nearby university. A first visit was escorted by our university’s Foreign Affairs Officer, Ms. Chen, on a gorgeous autumn day. We four foreign English teachers got a weekend glimpse of the park, still absorbing its additional pandas. We mostly bypassed the parts of Bifengxia that were a sort of commercial zoo, with the kitsch that can mar the natural landscape—even more Disney than Disney. Instead, we spent most of our time wandering  paths in a relatively undisturbed part of the valley, picnicking beside a small stream, only glancing on our way out at a few of the relocated pandas.

On my final Bifengxia visit, in spring 2009, I showed two American friends more extensively around the panda part of the base: the panda nursery, the juveniles’ play yards, the large enclosures for adult pandas, and the quarantine areas for pandas about to be shipped to zoos in other parts of the world.  I even succumbed to kitschiness enough to buy several fake panda backpacks and snugglies for the grandchildren. 

“Wow,” one friend remarked. “Zoo panda exhibits will never be the same after this.”

I agreed. We’d seen almost 60 pandas, though still in somewhat artificial settings. 

The final preserve I visited, in 2010, was the panda breeding center near Sichuan’s capital city of Chengdu. Programs there were similar to those at Bifengxia, but with an even greater emphasis on pregnancies, births, and nurture of baby pandas.  My husband and I were able to get within about a quarter mile of the center’s entrance by public bus. The bus disgorged us at the end of the line, where a major artery narrowed into a two-lane road. Nearby earthmoving equipment punctuated the soundscape. Construction-generated dust occluded the landscape.

A short walk brought us to the center’s entrance, where groves of trees helped reestablish a quieter atmosphere and filter out the worst of the dust. Multilingual signage pointed us over a small knoll in the direction of the pandas, or alternately downhill to a koi pond where we could buy food pellets to feed the fish, as many visiting families with children were doing. The pandas, when we reached their area, were cute, well-tended, obviously a source of pride and a generator of tourist income. Still,  it seemed to me just a matter of time before this center would be forced to relocate to a less densely populated area. Though muffled, the sounds of the bulldozers could be heard not far away from the 500 acre center.    

According to the website, over 120 panda cubs have been born at the Chengdu panda breeding center since it was first established in 1987. With a survival rate of over 70%, the breeding center no longer takes pandas from the wild, but exchanges genetic material with zoos and other centers worldwide to help preserve genetic diversity. By 2006, when National Geographic Magazine explored the economics of panda breeding and research in its article “Panda, Inc.,” the number and genetic diversity of captive pandas in breeding centers and zoos worldwide was approaching the 300-animal population level that experts predicted would allow the continuation of the species in captivity indefinitely with no deterioration due to inbreeding.

Maintaining a zoo panda in the U.S. costs between 2 and 3 million dollars per year. For zoos outside China, the annual cost of a panda includes a hefty conservation fee to Chinese wildlife agencies to help with panda research and conservation efforts in their home country. Periodically, pandas that have been “rented out” to foreign zoos are returned to China for breeding and further research.  Pandas’ symbolism and cuteness makes their endangered status more evident and their long-term species survival somewhat less tenuous than that of other similarly threatened species. However, these cuddly creatures beg a larger question that grows more crucial as human numbers and activity increase:  What is the value of wild-bred non-human populations? What are appropriate human roles in planetary stewardship?  If we could communicate with her, would recent panda mother Mei Xiang (at the Washington D.C. National Zoo) have a different response?

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