Tag Archives: Wolong Giant Panda Preserve

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.

When the Earth Moved: Two Perspectives

When the Earth Moved: Two Perspectives  —by Jinny Batterson

(Ever since the May 12, 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province that shook many people’s worlds, I’ve been trying to write about it. An earlier version of this prose poem originally appeared in the 2014 edition of the Silly Tree poetry anthology, “The Way the Light Slants.” )

He: I was hiking in the Sichuan hills with two friends, one American, one Chinese,
When the earth began to shake. For some interval of time, I thought I would die.
We took shelter beneath a rock overhang until the worst shaking subsided.

She: I was babysitting our grandson in America when the phone rang–
A newspaper reporter from our former hometown asked,
“Do you have a close relative in the earthquake zone?”
“What earthquake?” I responded. Then the earth began to quiver for me, too.
I tried to stay calm for the sake of our grandson.

He: We decided to seek more permanent shelter
In the little village we’d passed through coming up the hill.
Dodging boulders, we arrived safely, to find some houses smashed,
But everyone alive, amazingly hospitable to a city stranger and two foreigners.

She: While the toddler napped, I trolled the Internet.
The earthquake’s epicenter had been near the giant panda preserve at Wolong.
Online posts told of bad damage at this site of my husband’s previous email.
However, no foreign casualties were reported. Most fatalities occurred in cities
As buildings collapsed. I took heart: husband and friends were in the rural hills.

He: Officials from a larger town downhill, where our Chinese friend’s car
Was parked, came and insisted we go with them.
We resisted. They persisted. We dodged more boulders, rejoined the car.
Townspeople offered food and a tent. We joined them in a simple meal,
Cheered with them when their exhausted children walked safely,
But grimly, single file, back to town from their damaged school.
Aftershocks punctuated the night. We catnapped in the car. By morning,
Soldiers had hiked in over a mountain pass–most roads were blocked.
They cleared rubble.

She: Once the babysitting day was over, our son returned from work.
Soon questions came from all sides–When had I last heard from him?
Did I know where he was, exactly? My inbox overflowed; the phone kept ringing.
I offered more reassurance than I felt: Area communication lines were down;
He’d been in the countryside, most likely out in the open.
I was pretty sure he was safe. I’d relay further news as soon as I heard.
Please try not to worry. I slept.

He: Officialdom everywhere can be a nuisance, even a danger.
We were told: “Foreign tourists should not be in the earthquake zone.
No earthquake images allowed.” Cameras were confiscated, pictures deleted.
Police cars, at breakneck speed, returned us to the provincial capital
Over roads that would not be fully repaired for years, if ever.

She: The second day was harder. No babysitting chores. No direct word,
Only more and more Internet reports of damage and deaths,
Even in the countryside. I did some part-time contract work, poorly.
Early to bed, but not to sleep, much. About 4 a.m.
I again checked the Internet. Short new message:
“Madam, excuse please poor English. Husband and friends safe.”
Quick phone call to the American friend’s wife,
Emails to other family and friends, then, at last, sleep.

He: We began to absorb the massive extent of the quake.
Our Chinese friend’s city was especially hard hit–her parents’
House badly damaged; friends, classmates and colleagues killed.
At last I could contact my wife–let her know I was all right.

She: That fall, we began a year of English teaching at a Sichuan university
Far enough from the epicenter to have escaped major damage,
But close enough so some students had lost family or friends.
We grieved with them, easing the pain by writing and telling it out.
One weekend in May, 2009, we made an unofficial visit to the quake zone.
Temporary housing sprawled amid massive reclamation efforts.
I got to meet and thank some families who’d sheltered my husband and friends.
I finally got to meet and thank the English-challenged
Cousin of our Chinese friend, whose simple email had surpassed language.