Visiting the panda sanctuary was one of my priorities when picking a tour for my trip to China, especially after seeing the photos from my friends Liz and Larry after their visit. Few tours offer this as an option, so I was delighted when Overseas Adventure Travel included a visit to Chengdu and a morning at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding observing the pandas in their native habitat.
We were concerned when we saw the weather prediction showing a good chance that there would be rain the morning of our visit. “Pandas love the rain,” Heather, our local guide, told us in consolation. I brought my dry sack for my camera – just in case.
As the bus traveled out of town and into the nearby foothills where the sanctuary was located, Heather shared information about the importance of the breeding program.
Sixty pandas were rescued from the nearby mountains in the 1980’s after many pandas starved to death as a result of loss of habitat and the decline of the species of bamboo that form their primary diet. The rescued pandas were taken to the Chengdu zoo, nursed to health and formed the core of the breeding program.
As the breeding program began, the researchers needed to learn about panda biology and how they reproduce. They have been successful. “Last year there were 24 babies,” Heather explained.
After returning home, I learned from the website of the World Wildlife Fund that has provided funding to the sanctuary, “the giant panda has just been downgraded from ‘Endangered’ to ‘Vulnerable’ on the global list of species at risk of extinction, demonstrating how an integrated approach can help save our planet’s vanishing biodiversity.”
As Heather provided additional information, I was delighted to learn that we would also see Red Pandas. “Even though they share the same name as the Giant Panda,” she explained. “They are not really bears, but rather related to raccoons.”
We arrived at the entrance shortly after the sanctuary opened when the pandas are most actively feeding – and before the crowds arrived.
“That truck is filled with the inedible portions of the bamboo that were just cleaned out of the panda compounds.
Before heading up the hill to the area where the pandas live, we passed a small lake with Black Swans and two men standing in small boats – either fishing or doing maintenance.
Even though it would have been easy to have been distracted by the birds, I was so excited when we arrived at the first area where a panda lived. In real life, its sweet face was just as lovable-looking as in pictures and nature movies – and we all got out our cameras.
We watched as it ambled over to a newly deposited pile of bamboo stems
and began to munch.
We followed along the path that led past the generous enclosures where individual pandas lived, as well as an area with playful juveniles frolicking in the trees
and climbing areas.
“We are now going to enter the Red Panda area,” Heather told us. “They sometimes wander along the trail, but don’t touch or interact with them,” she cautioned.
Red Pandas are also an endangered species and the research base has a breeding facility.
We descended the steps into red panda ‘playground.’ Almost immediately, one of the diminutive pandas slipped under the fence and began walking along the boardwalk, almost brushing up against my legs. After it passed, I managed to get a rear end shot
before it found a gap in the fence and entered the forest on the other side and quickly disappeared into the trees.
Before too long, I noticed a Red-billed Leothrix feasting on pieces of fruit scattered next to pieces of bamboo. I couldn’t resist stopping to take a photo,
and then hurried to catch up with the tail end of the group taking pictures of a Red Panda in the top of a tree. It was difficult to photograph, as it didn’t stay still. After a few minutes of re-focusing my camera on the active mammal, I was able to get a good photo.
I looked up and didn’t see any of our group and hurried along the trail. I emerged from the Red Panda area, but didn’t see anyone. I walked a short distance, but the road split. I decided the best thing to do was to stay put. Before long, our guide Evan came looking for me and we walked back to the group – most of whom were shopping.
I took the opportunity to use the restroom and was amused by the panda-themed hand-dryer instructions.
We walked through the nursery building, but all of the windows were closed.
“When friends of mine, visited the sanctuary three years ago, they were able to interact with a panda one-on-one,” I mentioned to Heather.
“They have discontinued the program,” she told me. “They decided it was not good for the pandas, even though the $200 US they paid provided additional funds.”
As we made our way back to the bus, the misty rain finally started. We had been able to spend several hours touring the grounds without any rain.
It had been an incredible morning and a bucket list experience.