13 Sep China Panda Tourism Warms Hearts and Furthers Conservation
If you’re old enough to remember the arrival of Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling to Washington’s National Zoo in 1972, you surely remember the panda-monium that gripped the nation in the wake of President Nixon’s historic visit to China. Visiting the nation’s capital to see the celebrated duo became a coveted travel goal for many Americans.
And today, while a view of the zoo’s current panda pair, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, may be delightful, it just can’t compare to China’s multiple opportunities for close-up encounters with this beloved global icon of conservation.
Visitors to China — the giant panda’s native home — now have the opportunity to visit four different panda research and breeding bases in Sichuan province, with the reopening of the Wolong Giant Panda Center.
China’s famous Wolong panda base has reopened for visitation
Following the 2008 earthquake that devastated the Wolong research and breeding base established in 1980, the new Wolong center was rebuilt in Gengda, about 15 miles away, after geological studies confirmed the danger of rebuilding at the original location. It still lies within the Wolong Nature Reserve, an enclave of misty mountain slopes covered in bamboo forest that has become synonymous with panda conservation in China. The new site is a comprehensive base integrating scientific research, public education, captive breeding and field training for returning giant pandas to the wild. The reintroduction area, which acclimates pandas to a wild natural habitat, includes enclosures of three different sizes for different training levels.
Though the center was completed in 2012, it has only recently begun to host visitors following the construction of a new highway after a series of massive rainstorms and floods washed out the previous access road. In addition to a 5,000-square-foot research laboratory and a large hospital to treat ill or diseased pandas, a 3-mile footpath has been added to offer visitors a look at the panda’s native environs, including 680 acres of newly planted bamboo. Bamboo comprises nearly all of the giant panda’s diet, and widespread decimation of China’s bamboo forests has contributed greatly to its endangerment.
Natural Habitat Adventures has added the Wolong Center to its 2018 Wild Side of China itinerary and China photo tour. During a full day at Wolong, guests have the optional opportunity to spend a half-day volunteering in panda care alongside keepers. Tasks may include preparing food for the pandas (such as apples, carrots, bamboo and “panda bread,” special treats made from a bamboo leaf paste), helping to feed the pandas, and cleaning their enclosures.
Natural Habitat Adventures’ new 2018 itinerary includes 4 panda base visits
In addition to Wolong, Natural Habitat’s itinerary includes three other panda centers in Sichuan: Chengdu, plus two sites in Dujiangyan.
At the renowned Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, nearly 100 pandas are on display in a more artificial environment, with plenty of close-up photography opportunities. Guests who come in the fall may be lucky enough to see infant pandas in the nursery, as I did on a September visit. Never will you see so many onlookers willing to trade jobs with the caretakers behind the glass, cuddling and bottle-feeding the roly-poly fuzz balls.
At Dujiangyan Panda Valley and Dujiangyan Panda Base, visitors may see pandas in a range of settings, from natural forest to special-care enclosures. Panda Valley has a rescue and quarantine focus, retrieving sick and injured pandas from the wild so they can receive medical care and rehabilitation. At Dujiangyan Panda Base, a major focus is on senior and disabled pandas, serving as a panda “nursing home” where the animals get the nurturing they need.
Independent travelers to Sichuan may also visit Bifengxia Panda Reserve about 100 miles southwest of Chengdu near Ya’an. This large sanctuary was established on a tract of virgin forest in 2002 as the original program at Wolong grew, to avoid crowded conditions for the pandas and to protect against the threat of an outbreak of disease or infection that could wipe out the entire panda population at Wolong. Bifengxia took in the pandas relocated from Wolong after the earthquake in 2008.
Take your picture with a panda and support conservation
Frequently, the opportunity exists at some of the bases for visitors to have their photo taken with a panda in exchange for a substantial fee that goes toward the conservation mission of the site. The price is typically about $250 U.S. for about 30 seconds of “snuggle time” with a young panda that’s 1-2 years old.
When I traveled to China to see pandas, I figured it was probably a once-in-a-lifetime journey, and I couldn’t miss that chance. After all, when I was a little girl, I didn’t carry around a favorite doll — I carried a stuffed panda, and it went everywhere with me. When it fell irretrievably down between the bleachers at a ball game when I was 4, I cried inconsolably for two days. By the time I was 10, I had a whole pile of pandas — probably 20 of them — heaped on my bed. Pandas were a childhood obsession that never really left, and the thought of touching a real one was a fantasy I never expected to fulfill…until I went to China decades later.
Those of us who had signed on for the photo op donned protective clothing, including a gown-like overgarment and plastic gloves, so as not to transfer any germs to the baby panda. I waited my turn and was escorted into the courtyard that was the visit site. In a moment, a staff member came through a door guiding a lumbering, rambunctious young male panda, which was boosted up onto the bench next to me.
Quite unexpectedly, tears flowed from my eyes as I put my arms around him and pulled him in close for a hug, noting that his fur was firm and crisp. Like a human toddler, he was a little antsy, swiveling his head to look around at the onlookers. Far too quickly, our encounter was over, though the photo I took home never fails to elicit a smile, reminding me of a brief instant that remains among my most treasured travel memories.
And while that moment was surely the most thrilling of my trip, it was also exhilarating to get in on another, even rarer opportunity: a chance to visit genuine wild panda habitat on a remote reserve where about 60 giant pandas live and breed freely.
Visit a wilderness sanctuary where pandas and endangered wildlife roam freely
Very few commercial panda-focused trips in China include such a coveted experience. Even though it’s extremely unlikely that you will actually spy a giant panda in the wild, just knowing that you could is exhilarating. And that was the case when our small group traveling with Natural Habitat Adventures drove for a day on rugged, winding roads into the Mishan Mountains to reach a 100,000-acre national wildlife sanctuary that sees very few visitors, and virtually no Westerners.
We were met with a scene that could not stand in greater contrast to most travelers’ mental visions of China: hours from any city of consequence, we were enveloped in silence but for gushing waterfalls and a wild, clear river thundering down through a rocky gorge. The air was fresh and laden with moisture, the mountaintops poking up into a veil of mist.
The reserve’s name is a closely guarded secret by the tour operator, not just to preserve the exclusivity of the visitors’ experience, but to protect some of the world’s most endangered and vulnerable wildlife inside its boundaries from an influx of too much tourism. The densely forested ecosystem is one of the most intact in Asia, rated Grade I by WWF as a global biodiversity hotspot.
In addition to its healthy giant panda population, the reserve is also home to red pandas and moon bears, some 1,200 takin, 1,000 golden monkeys, blue sheep, serow, muntjac, wild boar, and Tibetan and rhesus macaques among its 430 mammal species. Birdwatching opportunities are superb with more than 150 species, including the elegant golden pheasant. Natural Habitat’s trip includes a 3-night stay at the only accommodation in the narrow river valley that bisects the park. Its groups are often the only guests staying on site.
We didn’t see any pandas on our multiple forest walks, but we knew we had experienced something else that was very rare: an immersion in untouched Chinese nature that few travelers are privileged to know.
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