Tuesday, December 06, 2016


During my time at university, when spare time was as common as my accent, I would spend hours watching panda videos on YouTube. Pandas sneezing, rolling down hills and throwing themselves off a slide were personal favourites. Every second of footage made my eyes water with cuteness overload. They looked unlike anything I had ever seen, it was almost impossible to believe that they weren't men dressed in suits fooling us all.

For five years I planned a trip to China, I would climb the Great Wall, take a selfie with the Terracotta Warriors and stroll down the bund. But, most importantly, I would spend a day at Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding... and it was more than I could have imagined.

Pandas have fast become a symbol of China. Now we will make no assumptions that animal welfare is China's most pressing concern, pandas are a tourist attraction - and that is most likely the sole reason for their survival. And it worked, because I flew 5,700 miles just to see them.

The amount of science involved in making pandas breed is exhausting. Female pandas are only in heat once a year and are normally only in the mood for a few days. Not to mention they live off bamboo, which makes their milk a terrible nutrient for newborns. Now I'm no expert, but that sounds like bad odds for panda babies.

I am fully aware of the conservationist argument for letting them die off, and maybe if the situation were different I would wholeheartedly agree. Pandas are notoriously silly, and the amount of money spent on keeping them alive could easily be used for more worthwhile conservation projects. I mean, what's the point of keeping a species alive when it clearly has no concept of how to survive in its natural habitat? But seeing the amount of visitors that flock to the research centre every year, it's easy to see how this conservation programme is working as a tourism business. And of course the most obvious reason being that they are so darn cute.

I thus had a picture in my head that the facility would be one enormous science laboratory, solely for the purpose of pumping out baby pandas on a conveyor belt, sending them to panda nursery until they were old enough to continue the cycle.

But as I turned up at the entrance, feeling like a 5 year old at Disneyland, my predispositions seemed to wash away. The park, and I use the word park because it felt a little Jurassic Parkesque the moment I arrived, has everything you could imagine (minus the dinosaurs and electric fences). Two seconds in and there I was, standing 5 metres away from a panda shovelling bamboo into its mouth. Was it worth it? Yes.

The enclosures were large, covered in thick bush allowing privacy from the prying eyes of tourists. An inside area provided air conditioning when the weather got too hot for them and the breeding programme seems to be in full steam, as I arrived to see 16 baby pandas lying together on a bed - until one shoved another off the end – poor guy.

The crowds were intense, mostly Chinese nationals coming to see their country's homage. I showed no mercy, and persistence paid off as I got prime viewing time at every spot.

There was one unpleasant story I overheard of a hot summer day that resulted in copious complaints from tourists who wanted to see the pandas playing outside. It apparently resulted in staff forcing them out and locking the hatch - meaning roasting pandas banging on doors wanting to go back inside. I attended on a cold winter’s day, so I cannot attribute any validity to that story, but it is definitely something to bear in mind when deciding what time of year to visit. Pandas don't like the heat, and certainly shouldn't be outside in it.

There is no denying it though; I was impressed by what I saw. Hats off to China for creating such an incredibly magical place and bringing a species back from the brink of extinction.

I would go back and see the beautiful bears in a heartbeat.



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