This month I took a trip to Chengdu, one of China's most livable cities, the thriving capital of Sichuan province, to see the infamous Pandas. Two years back I’d spent a few hours there during a transfer flight to the Middle East, so the airport was familar. After landing you sense the population there is far more relaxed than the governmental seat of China, Beijing, where I'd departed from.
It was going to be a short trip, so after various moments enjoying the other sights in the city and the famous Sichuan cuisine, I was looking forward to my envisioned Gorillas in the Mist experience at the Giant Panda breeding centre, home to around fifty pandas, located 18 kilometers north of the city.
On Sunday after arriving late Friday, we boarded the metro not really knowing anything about the finer details of the itinery, but in China tourist areas are very well organized. True to form, the Panda bus was waiting outside the metro station and we boarded along with the hoards of weekend crowds.
Okay, so I hadn’t read up on the site, that's fine, but it didn’t look as though we were going to see Panda's in the wild after all. On the ground, in reality, the Pandas are kept in large enclosures and have a dedicated team of scientists and keepers tending to their every need.
We entered the centre around midday after pushing towards the entrance along with the swarms of weekend spectators. The Pandas are most active in the morning so we’d missed that show. However, feeding time later in the afternoon would provide the opportunity to get some close up photos.
China doesn't give Pandas based on diplomatic conditions with foreign countries and as the Giant Panda is only found in the wild on a few mountain ranges in central China, mainly in Sichuan, China has a cuddly bargaining chip that's very much in demand. Farming, deforestation, and the rapid urbanization of China has driven the Pandas out of the lowland areas where it once lived to the point where the Panda is a conservation reliant vulnerable species.
The Panda's diet consists almost exclusively of Bamboo with the average Giant Panda chomping its way though 9 to 14 kilos of the stuff every day; but strangely it has the digestive system of a carnivore, so not surprising that these Pandas have such a low metabolic rate due to a diet lacking in protein which in turn affects the Panda's behaviour.
Social interactions and steeply sloping terrain are avoided to limit its energy expenditures. Pandas are generally solitary creatures, a female isn't tolerant of other females in her range. Social encounters occur primarily during the brief breeding season in which Pandas in proximity to one another will gather and after mating, the male leaves the female alone to raise the cub.
So I figured out why the site had the word breeding highlighted. Before, the primary method of breeding giant Pandas in captivity was by artificial insemination, as they seemed to lose their interest in mating after capture. Only recently have researchers started having success with captive breeding programs, and the normal reproductive rate is now considered to be one young cub every two years.
In 2009 Chinese scientists announced the birth of the first cub to be successfully conceived through artificial insemination using frozen sperm, so zoos in destinations such as San Diego and Mexico City will now be able to provide their own semen to inseminate their Giant Pandas.
My lasting memory of these Pandas will be of one of them in its enclosure during the late afternoon feeding time, with its back to the audience of hundreds of visitors, munching its way through the Bamboo stems. Every now and again a giant claw would reach out for another then swiftly it would go straight in between those strong jaws. The pile of Bamboo eventually disappeared then with no more energy the Panda decided to climb onto a bed of wooden rafters to sleep. The spectacle was over and the crowds gradually made their way out of the exit gates.
Was the expense of the trip worth it? Yes, Chengdu Pandas are a must see in China.