Tag Archives: pandas

Pandas Playing Mahjongg–Enjoying the Cary Chinese Lantern Festival

Pandas Playing Mahjongg, Enjoying the Cary Chinese Lantern Festival 

                                                        —by Jinny Batterson

Cary Chinese Lantern Festival Panda Land 2019

For the past several years, a traveling exhibit of LED-lit silk-skinned “lanterns” has come to our North Carolina town during the darkest period of winter. Last year on the night I attended the festival, the air was bitingly cold. Crowds were sparse. This year, on a clear weekend evening a good bit warmer than typical for early January, I ate an early supper, then put on a hoodie, drove to the festival site, parked in a free adjacent lot, and walked to the box office to get a ticket. I arrived a little after the festival’s 6 p.m. opening—once the sky was dark enough to provide a good backdrop for the thousands of lanterns and fanciful lit shapes.

I’d assumed that by arriving early, I’d “beat the crowds” and minimize my wait time to purchase tickets (cheaper at the gate than by internet) and then gain entry to the exhibit space. The wait wasn’t too long—maybe twenty minutes in all–but it turned out I’d arrived at the height of that evening’s viewing hours for multi-generational families. Rather than come later in the evening, they were enjoying the spectacle before youngsters’ bedtimes, at the same time taking advantage of reduced or free entry for young children.

The star of the show, a huge brightly lit dragon, again stretched along the shallows of Symphony Lake for a couple hundred feet. It was even larger and more intricate than last year’s dragon.  A few of the other exhibits were similar to what I’d seen previously, but arranged differently and with different emphasis.  New features had been added, too, including a set of large lantern “drums” near the entrance, with a real drum that kids could pound on to make the lights glow brighter.

Cary Chinese Lantern Festival Drums

My favorite set of lanterns was “panda land.” I’d previously spent time in China in the region where pandas are native. This exhibit featured stylized panda figures in human poses—riding a bicycle or, my absolute top pick, playing the Chinese tiled game of mahjongg, a sort of cross between dominoes and the card game spades.  Periodically, performers on the festival stage did acrobatics or Chinese dances—I watched briefly, then went back to the pandas. This year’s lantern festival is nearly over. The weather for remaining evenings is predicted to be less pleasant than the evening I went.

If you live locally, I’d encourage you to go if you can. Too often these days our airwaves are full of insults, ricocheting threats, and fear mongering. Against this background, an outdoor stroll alongside others speaking many languages, all of us watching the whimsical uses we can make of our technologies when we’re not busy fussing with each other, is, dare I say it, priceless.     

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.