Don’t we all love pandas? Maybe, like me, you had a panda among your soft toys when you were a child. But, when I was growing up in the 50s, few people ever saw a real panda; it wasn’t until the 1960s that China began giving pandas as gifts to world leaders, and giving … or selling … them to zoos around the world.
Usually, once in the zoo, they tended to just sit around chewing bamboo shoots, looking cute and cuddly, and generally being pandas. But, from time to time, they would be introduced to members of the opposite sex, although they almost always found it difficult to get on with each other, let alone get together to make little pandas.
On the very rare occasion they did manage to breed successfully, it became front page news … and that would be about the only time you’d see as many as three pandas together.
Chengdu: the best place to see pandas
To really see pandas, the best place to visit is Chengdu, in China. That’s in the Sichuan province, famed also for the nearby Giant Buddha of Leshan, but especially for the highly spiced Sichuan (formerly Szechuan) cuisine
The pandas used to inhabit the area around here, so it was chosen, in 1987, as the location for the ‘Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding’. The site also has the advantage that it’s only about an hour’s bus ride from the city centre.
Pandas are on the ‘endangered species’ list, for the bamboo forests on which they depend are diminishing rapidly; they need between 25 and 85 pounds of it a day. So, in the wild, they’re mainly confined to remote, out of the way high mountain areas, and even if you can get to them, your visa will probably have expired by the time you see any pandas.
Throughout our stay in China, we usually had to get up very early to see what we’d come to see before the usual horde of visitors arrived. Often, we would find that a goodly proportion of the citizens had the same idea. But here, I was surprised to find the centre wasn’t nearly as crowded as I’d expected. We had a good sight of the pandas, which I was able to photograph and video easily. There are about 130 of them, so you’ll usually see a good number … we saw about 20 on our visit; more than anywhere else in the world.
And, it does add an extra thrill to see them in something approaching their natural habitat.
There’s also a small colony of red pandas, which are much more active, agile creatures. They aren’t really pandas at all … at least, not related in any way to the giant panda. But, someone thought they were, so the name stuck. Since they, too, are an endangered species, they also found a home here.
As the name suggests, the main concern of the centre is with research into and conservation of these delightful creatures, But, it still attracts visitors from all over the world … and some of them like to be photographed holding the panda, although this activity has been suspended at the time of writing, owing to an outbreak of canine distemper. When it is permitted, though, you have to make an appointment … and it’s expensive. 2000 yuan … which converts to £200 (€275/$320). I’m not all that keen on ‘interaction’ with any wild creatures, but it does provide much-needed funds for the base’s work.