Tag Archives: Bifengxia Panda Base

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 giantpandazoo.com, 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?

Sichuan’s Pandas, Preserved? (part 1 of 2)

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.