The main attraction in Chengdu would have to be the Chengdu Panda Breeding Centre. Pandas, heavily endangered and difficult to breed in captivity, seem to be one of those rare animals that everyone loves. Big balls of black and white fur, they look cute and cuddly – although I’m sure they’re probably not as cuddly as we all like to imagine.
We visited the Panda Breeding Centre early in the morning, arriving just as the park opened. Being a Saturday we definitely wanted to be there early to beat the crowds. Entering, the research centre has quite extensive grounds – it’s more like a large panda zoo. It was quite a hike to get to the first section with pandas. We’d done an organised tour from our hostel, which included entrance and transport. When we got to the first area and spotted the first panda the whole group of us – about ten people – were brimming with excitement. It was a big fat panda, just relaxing on a bamboo platform and pointedly ignoring us. He looked like he needed a bath.
The enclosure held a number of pandas, and we walked all the way around it spotting more pandas. Some were already tired of the heat and trying to get back inside where it’s air-conditioned; others were happily playing on their platforms and rolling around. One thought he was a bit clever and climbed/rolled/fell off his platform with some rather awkward gymnastic moves. Watching him made me suspect that pandas have such long thick fur to cushion their falls as much as to keep them warm high up in the mountains.
We visited a number of enclosures and saw SO MANY PANDAS! Each enclosure had information about the pandas in there, which was interesting. One was quite a famous panda apparently – the international face of Earth Hour.
A keeper was whistling for the pandas at one enclosure and it was entertaining to watch them respond like dogs – getting down from where they were and ‘running’ to where they obviously get fed. At the same time, it was a little sad to see such beautiful creatures so domesticated.
The centre also has a large population of red pandas – which look more like a cross between a fox and a racoon than a panda, and while they’re very cute the attention is really focused on the giant pandas.
We watched a short documentary about their breeding program and how this is run, as well as some of the developments they’ve made. The documentary stated that they have discovered that sperm collection from the male pandas is easier with a bit of ‘massage’. I’d hate to be the person whose job it is to masturbate pandas, but hey – it’s for a noble cause.
We got to visit the nursery and see the baby pandas they had, and they had two fairly newborn pandas. It surprised me that pandas are born very underdeveloped and helpless – similar in many ways to marsupial babies or human babies rather than to other mammals.
They are born almost completely hairless, looking like little pink slugs. They are blind and entirely helpless, and need significant care from the mother. They don’t begin to grow hair for a month, and it’s many more months before they can see and walk and begin to fend for themselves. They’re quite ugly little babies – I’m used to newborn kittens and puppies, and they’re much cuter than baby pandas. They’re also independent so, so much earlier, like most mammals. It’s something I’m curious to learn more about – why they’re born so early and what benefits this has. Given giant pandas are only fertile for a couple of days a year, and their young are entirely defenceless, it seems bizarre that the species as a whole has existed for around eight million years – a very long time for any species.
I also learned that pandas actually have the digestive system and organs of a carnivore – very interesting given that their primary diet has been bamboo for millions of years. Apparently they will very occasionally eat meat, but it seems strange that their digestive system hasn’t evolved to suit their diet – especially as their bodies digest bamboo very inefficiently and absorb only about 30% of it. I guess while it wasn’t entirely efficient, it wasn’t detrimental enough to be selected against. The more I learn about pandas, the more miraculous it seems that they’re still around and the more understandable their current predicament is – even before factoring in human encroachment on their environment and poaching. Helpless infants, solitary lifestyle, low and infrequent fertility, inefficient digestion requiring the intake of extraordinary amounts of food while expending as little energy as possible – is anything going right for these beautiful creatures? It shows how important the work the research centre does is.
You can even hold a baby panda there…if you can afford to pay 2000 RMB. This is about AUD $370. It was slightly out of our budget, but even if we had been willing to pay we’d have had to come back another day as it was all booked out!
I don’t know if I can really explain how amazing it was to see the pandas up close. So I’m totally cheating and including below a few of the many, many photos I took!