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  • Writer's pictureChris Wright

Bear Necessity: China's Panda Sanctuary

Qantas: The Australian Way, February 2012

Is there any animal so obstinately intent on its own demise as the giant panda? They are beautiful, magnificent creatures, but they don’t exactly help themselves to thrive.

They eat pretty much only one thing – bamboo, often 30 kilograms a day of the stuff – and even then prefer specific varieties of it, and sometimes different varieties at different times of year. They then consume it with a digestive system designed for carnivores, not vegetarians; the process of digesting it so exhausts the panda that they spend about 20 hours a day either eating or sleeping it off, leaving them vulnerable. They are notoriously difficult to persuade to mate in captivity, and if they do conceive, the disparity in size between the mother and cub – one being about one thousand times larger than the other – is potentially lethal for the infant.

It’s remarkable that pandas have proven such robust creatures: they’ve been around for eight million years. But today, there are estimated to be just 1,600 of them left in the wild, almost all of them in one Chinese province, Sichuan, and within that in just five relatively small mountain ranges.

It’s a relief, then, that help is at hand for this threatened species. China is not known for its conservation, but within the city limits of Chengdu in China’s southwest is one of the most successful breeding programs anywhere in the world: Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

To see the article as it ran, click here: qa0212_ChinaPandas

This 100-hectare site, founded in 1987 with just six pandas in recognition that something had to be done to protect them from the steady erosion of their natural habitat, is an unquestionable success story. Few places in the world have ever bred pandas in captivity; by the end of 2009 the Chengdu centre had achieved 92 successful panda births with 132 cubs, and typically welcomes five to seven new cubs each year (2008, with 17, was a record). 63 pandas live here today and many more, on loan or donated to zoos around the world from Spain to Japan, remain under the centre’s advice. All told, there are around 300 pandas in captivity, and at least one third are either in Chengdu or started out here.

This is part zoo, part educational centre, part research institute and part breeding programme. And in a country whose zoos can be bleak to the point of cruelty, it blends its functions very well. It has already become the single biggest tourist draw in Chengdu, a booming city in China’s southeast; 70% of all foreigners who visited Chengdu in 2010 went to the centre.

Viewed purely as a zoo, it has a lot to recommend it. The site itself is well-planned, with an artificial lake that teems with birds, and separate spaces for the much smaller, fox-like red pandas. But it’s the giant pandas people come to see, and they are on show in a sequence of enclosures, divided by age.

There are people who claim the amount of money spent on panda conservation is wildly lopsided compared to other species, but a few minutes looking at these creatures makes it clear why nobody could countenance any threat of their extinction. In the first enclosure, four cubs of about six months, so young that they would still be with their mother for another year in the wild, are climbing trees. You could spend all day searching for an adjective for them, but you just can’t avoid the obvious one: they are effortlessly, outrageously cute. One attempts to climb slowly down from the top of a tree, not looking where it is going; it steps on its brother’s head. The brother, pawing at the trunk with an expression of defeated resignation, slides slowly out of the tree, ending baffled on the ground. Meanwhile, a third has fallen asleep with two paws either side of a branch and is suspended ten feet up, fast asleep; it’s like a black and white Winnie the Pooh.

In another enclosure an older mother, aged 13, sits alone, ploughing through bamboo. While a panda like this might normally get through 20 to 30 kilograms a day, in the centre, they are provided about 50kg, “because they are picky,” a guide explains. They are woefully badly designed for their diet: their gut is just too short to digest it properly, so when it comes out the other end – which happens about 40 times a day – it looks much the same as when it went in. They absorb only about 10% of the nutrition from their meals, another reason they are constantly either eating or sleeping. And on top of everything else, in the wild they have the problem that every so often bamboo bursts into flowers – and then it dies. When that happens, they have to look elsewhere for food, and in endlessly urbanising China, there’s not so much “elsewhere” left.

A third enclosure has several older pandas, aged about three and a half. There could be no greater photo-opportunity: they sit and loll, chomp and fumble, staring photogenically into the middle distance. It is, apparently, possible to be photographed holding a young panda if you give sufficient notice and a decent donation (apparently the going rate is currently around RMB1,000, or A$144), though quite how much longer that will be permitted is anybody’s guess.

The educational side of the centre focuses on the breeding, which as often with these things brings a confronting level of information; you might not want to combine your education on the methods (“a new semen collection model combines massage with electric stimulation!”) with your breakfast. If you can’t see a newborn at the centre’s nursery house – and you’d be lucky if you did – a video brings home just how incredibly delicate pandas are when they first appear: pink and hairless, as small as 50 grams in size, blind, and utterly helpless. There’s nothing giant about a giant panda when it enters the world: they are, inherently, born premature. The mother, so comparatively vast, playfully knocks its child around like a football, apparently unaware of the damage she might cause. For the centre, raising a panda in captivity is as much a matter of considered intervention as anything else.

As well as the centre, Sichuan hosts a leading sanctuary for pandas at Wolong Nature Reserve, 140 kilometres northwest of Chengdu, but the area was devastated by the terrible Sichuan earthquake of 2008. Several of the animals were killed, and those that were not have been transferred to another base called Bifengxia; it is hoped that Wolong will re-open in 2012.

There is an awkward question to be asked at the base, though. For all its breeding successes, not one panda has ever been released back into the wild. That’s not the case at other celebrated wildlife protection centres such as, for example, the orang-utan sanctuary in Sepilok, Borneo. So what’s the breeding really for? To rejuvenate a species or sustain a zoo?

The guides say they do hope to return pandas to the wild one day, and they can surely be forgiven their reticence to start: the species is imperilled. And in China, a decision to pamper an endangered species is to be celebrated over the alternatives. And pamper them they do. The generous treatment pandas receive from their keepers in the base may help explain why Chinese mothers sometimes say about an indulged child: “You’re acting like a giant panda!”

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