Tag Archives: Sichuan

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.

Beasts of the Chinese Zodiac, More New Year…

Beasts of the Chinese Zodiac, More New Year Celebrations

—by Jinny Batterson

Anyone who’s ever been given a place mat at a Chinese-American restaurant likely has seen pictures of the animals of the Chinese zodiac:  mouse/rat, ox/bull/buffalo, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep/goat/ram, monkey, rooster, dog, pig.  Unlike the roughly monthly zodiac familiar to readers of American newspapers, the Chinese zodiac works in lunar year increments, generally running from mid-January-to-mid-February of one year to mid-January-to-mid-February of the next.  To further complicate matters, the Chinese zodiac also cycles through five “elements” (some claim it’s really the “ten heavenly stems”) of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, so a complete cycle takes 60 years.

The first time we spent Chinese New Year in China, we ushered in the “Year of the (Metal) Golden Pig,” an especially auspicious year, according to China fortune tellers. When we returned two years later, we experienced the transition to the “Year of the Earth Ox,”  a more middling kind of year. Fortunes have been made and lost over the interpretation of the various Chinese zodiac signs.  Some years are reputed to be luckier than others, and slight ripples in the overall birth rate can be attributed to parents working toward having a child born in a “good” year. A chart of a 20th century cycle of years, with their attributes, is part of the China travel website http://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/astrology/60year-cycle.htm.

Most of the animals of the Chinese zodiac are familiar to anyone who’s ever spent time on a farm or lived in the countryside.  One exception stands out—the dragon.  For Chinese, dragons are good, rather than the evil creatures portrayed in much of Western mythology.  Chinese mythology credits dragons with inhabiting and taming major rivers in China, the northernmost being “Heilongjiang,” or “Black Dragon River.” Being born in a dragon year (which most recently occurred in 2007) is considered lucky.  Emperors of China’s dynasties often had dragons embroidered on their clothing. Only the emperor’s residence was allowed to have dragon symbols on its rooftops.  As a guide explained to me on an early tour in Beijing, a dragon is considered to have the attributes of nine different animals:  the head of an ox, the horns of a deer, the eye of a tiger, the teeth of a leopard, the antenna of a shrimp, the mane of a horse, the scales of a fish, the body of a snake, and the claws of an eagle.  A royal beast, indeed.

Our New Year celebrations in 2009 were spent in various parts of Sichuan. Our friend Jean Wang and her husband were able to meet us in Ya’an a few days before the year’s new year celebration, which would occur on Monday, January 29.  Jean was just getting over a bad cold, and I seemed to be coming down with a similar infection.  Despite health and weather concerns, we all went to see the pandas at nearby Bifengxia, then spent the night in our Foreign Teachers’ Guest House, where there was a spare apartment for Jean and her husband due to the holidays.

At New Year, we spent a couple of days visiting lots of Jean’s in-laws, necessitating most of a day’s journey by bus and then taxi. One contingent of relatives lived in a compound high enough in the hills to be off a car-friendly road.  We carpooled in an uncle’s van as far as we could go.  Afterwards, several of the younger cousins roared the remaining half mile on the motorcycle one of them had parked at the foot of the last hill.  The rest of us walked. The noise level and the smoke density from firecrackers were less intense than what we’d experienced two years before, but we got to see more of the traditions of a Sichuan countryside Spring Festival—curing and cooking sausages, sweeping out the house and family compound, burning paper money to bring good fortune, visiting first the male relatives, then the female side of the family. What did not change from our previous experience was the quantity and variety of food. A Thanksgiving feast may be the closest American equivalent.  Any notion of vigorous physical activity during the day or two after Spring Festival is pretty much a lost cause.  Sadly, we did not get a chance to meet Jean’s family at the holiday. One of the casualties of the increasing mobility of younger generations of Chinese may be the chance to see everyone’s relatives each year.

We made up for the fact that we could not visit Jean’s family by visiting one of Sichuan’s best tourist sites, not far from where her in-laws lived.  We spent a day in Leshan, Sichuan, home of the world’s largest pre-modern statue, a seated Buddha. Even in midwinter, the “Big Buddha” of Leshan is impressive. It is over 230 feet tall, overlooking the confluence of several rivers of southern Sichuan.  It was built more than a thousand years ago at the insistence of a Buddhist monk who had seen a vision of a Buddha to protect sailors, many of whom were drowning in the treacherous currents where the rivers joined. So much stone was moved and thrown into the river during the lengthy process of excavating the site and carving the statue that the river currents were changed, so the area did in fact become safer for boats. On the blustery day when we visited, few other tourists were in sight. We took pictures of the four of us at the fence overlooking the Buddha’s massive head,  then threaded our way carefully down the cliffside stairs to the Buddha’s base. There we took another picture—Jean beside the Buddha’s big toe, which was taller than she was.


Simple Gifts

Simple Gifts    —by Jinny Batterson

“Ruby” is a Chinese economic success story. Ruby grew up in poverty in a mountainous rural county about 5 hours’ drive across the mountains from the regional hospital in Ya’an, Sichuan, where she is now a doctor, a kidney disease specialist. Since her youth, she’s completed high school, university, and advanced training. She has earned enough to purchase an in-town apartment, one she shared with her aging parents when she wasn’t either on duty or catching a few hours’ sleep at the staff dormitory at the hospital between work shifts. She dresses well and enjoys travel, but has been somewhat limited in her leisure time because of work and family obligations.  I first met Ruby at an autumn evening’s “English corner” session, open to students, staff, and town residents in Ya’an where my husband and I were spending the 2008-2009 academic year as foreign teachers at a local university. For much of the year, when she could get time off, Ruby practiced her English with us while she showed us around many of the tourist sites and natural areas closest to our university town.

Over the course of the years when I’ve traveled in China, living standards have improved tremendously.  The “three most wanteds” list that in the 1950’s included such basics as a bicycle, a radio, and leather shoes, more recently moved up to washing machine, mobile phone, television, computer, air conditioner, and even car for China’s burgeoning urban middle class.  The poverty rate throughout China, measured as those surviving on less than $1.25 per day,  decreased from 81% in 1981 to only a third as high, 27%, by 2012. In many urban areas, the rate is even lower. Still, there are pockets in the countryside that the new affluence seems largely to have passed by. Ruby’s hometown was one of these. It was inaccessible via major road. We never had a chance to see it during our year in Ya’an. Its isolation, we heard, reinforced the largely agrarian, hardscrabble existence of its inhabitants, who grew subsistence food crops plus fruit for regional markets.

After our teaching year was over, we kept up with Ruby intermittently by email.  On a later China visit, we reconnected. We were excited when she was able to arrange a weekend in the area where she’d grown up.  During Ruby’s childhood, settlements in Hanyuan County were mostly located in a fertile alluvial plain, tucked between successive ranges of the mountains of western Sichuan. Then came the double whammy of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake plus the impending relocation of all low-lying settlements to make way for an impoundment lake that would soon flood the valley, backed up behind a hydroelectric dam being built downstream.

By the time we got to Hanyuan, most low-lying areas were abandoned. A steep, raw new city was taking shape higher along the mountain slopes. We had a hot pot dinner at one of the few remaining lowland restaurants, then went to visit one of Ruby’s friends in her new apartment block in the new city.  Not many foreigners came to this part of the country, so we were a novelty.  On Sunday, before starting the long trek back to Ya’an, Ruby took us for a walk along one of the major streets. Locals came up to her and asked her who we were and why we were in Hanyuan—she replied that we were her friends, and that she’d brought us from Ya’an on a short visit to her hometown. We were headed back uphill to the apartment block where her friend lived when still another group of locals approached us from behind.  Three little girls, dressed in warm colorful jackets against the chill, were out walking with their grandfather. The grandfather checked with Ruby to see who we were, then explained in local dialect to his granddaughters. After a block or so, the eldest girl walked up to Jim and took hold of his hand. A little later, the two younger girls, emboldened by their cousin’s example, came up beside me and each took one of my hands. Ruby used her cell phone to snap a low-resolution picture of the group of us—two foreigners, several local adults, and three adventuresome young Chinese girls, enjoying the simple gift of a weekend walk together.