The Giant Pandas of Chengdu, Sichuan Province

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The Giant Pandas of Chengdu, Sichuan Province

A Giant Panda in Chengdu Sichuan Province ChinaThere are less than 2,000 pandas in the world today with 200 of them in ‘captivity’. Seeing these wondrous creatures was the primary reason for visiting Sichuan Province. It is very difficult to see them in the wild so the breeding centre in Chengdu is probably the best place to see the Pandas in as close to their natural habitat as possible.

We started the day reasonably early – up at 7am and leaving the hotel at 8.30. The weather was cool but still humid and Ken, our guide explained that this was the best time to see the pandas before the heat of the day makes them lazy.

The breeding centre is a large open air complex with wide pathways winding their way through tall bamboos on either side which, probably with some encouragement, have grown together to create attractive archway through which to walk.

You can get a small electric car to take you up to the enclosure but it was a pleasant walk through the bamboo to the first stop – 3 young pandas eating bamboo and relaxing in the early morning sun which is just beginning to peak through the clouds.

Panda relaxing at the Chengdu Breeding Centre in Sichuan ProvinceThe pandas are enchanting and have surprisingly human mannerisms. One of the pandas, which are about 2-3 years old, was lying on its back tucking into a handful of bamboo leaves on the end of a long bamboo cane, in a scene reminiscent of a holiday maker lying on a sun lounger.

Another was sitting upright with its foot resting on a nearby log while the third, having had its fill of bamboo climbed into a low branch and lay there sunning itself, its round black eyes looking remarkably like sunglasses!

Walking around other areas, we saw 3 more young pandas, probably no more than a year, sheltering in a tree. They looked peaceful and had obviously just finished eating.

As we watched the 3 young pandas, one of the centre staff came to the bottom of the tree and tried to tempt the pandas down. First by shouting, the with some food on a stick and finally by climbing the tree and gently pushing the panda down.

The reason for this is that the centre allows you to pay to ‘cuddle’ a panda (a minimum donation of 1000 Yuan, around £100 GBP) and you can see the attraction for the tourists to take this unique opportunity and for the centre to generate additional revenues from rich tourists without having to raise the entrance price too high. However, to me this takes it over a line into exploitation. The objective of the centre is to try and maintain and build the wild panda population, not to turn them into toys.

Moving on we say the incubation area for newly born pandas. A notice said that a panda had been born just 6 days ago but unfortunately it was not in the incubator.

Then at last we saw a fully grown mother giant panda, who like the others was resting. One of her cubs was resting by itself (pandas are by nature quite solitary) while the other was playing with its mother until eventually she used an enormous paw to pull it into a cuddle.

Lesser Red Pandas, part of the Racoon family, in Chengdu, Sichuan ProvinceAs well as seeing Giant Pandas at the centre we also saw a Lesser Panda or Red Panda. These animals are part of the racoon family and have long red bodies and a long stripy red tail. They have little in common with their giant counterparts except their diet of bamboo and a vague similarity about their facial markings. These pandas are also endangered and apparently there are only around 3000 in China.

The centre also provides information about the pandas and other endangered wildlife in China (for example the leopard, the golden cat and several colourful birds). There is a film that explains the process of artificial breeding which shows the very small, and very cute pink baby pandas and the mothers tenderly cuddling and licking them to keep the safe.

Of course there is a souvenir shop which inevitably has pandas of all shapes and sizes as well as other panda novelties. We didn’t buy anything but the prices, which are fixed looked pretty reasonable.