Family Fun with Pandas in Sichuan Province, China
Pandas in a sanctuary in Chengdu, Sichuan
A long black finger taps my cheek while I shift to balance my new 80-pound friend sitting on my lap. To my delight, he puts his gracefully arched fingernail up my nose, then leans in to start chewing the buttons off my shirt. I’ve never had such treatment from a panda. Thus began our family’s weekend sojourn at Wolong, one of three Giant Panda Breeding facilities in Sichuan. Not only did we observe and hold the pandas, but we learned about the breeding and preservation of this endangered species as well.
Editor’s note: The Wolong National Nature Reserve was devastated by an earthquake in May, 2008. Forty giant pandas were evacuated to the Bifengxia Panda Base in Ya’an City, a little over an hour away from Wolong by bus. They and their offspring can be visited there. The original Wolong facility has been re-located to Gengda Town. There is another facility in Dugiangyan. Please contact the tour operators noted in this journal to arrange a visit to the new panda preserves.
A van from the China International Travel Service (CITS), driver Mr. Hu and our bright and personable guide, Sammi, had met us the day before at the Chengdu Airport in Sichuan’s capital city, and checked us into the Jin Jiang Hotel. Everything worked according to the plans of Pacific Delight World Tours, an American tour operator who arranged this part of our China journey with CITS.

Exciting Drive to Wolong

From Chengdu, the ride to Wolong usually takes about three hours. After about two hours on freeways, the road climbed above the smog and traffic to reveal a very pretty countryside.  Sichuan’s lushly verdant Qiong Lai Mountains are reminiscent of New England’s landscape, though our two-lane blacktop wound between a steep wooded hillside, bands of growing cabbage, and the swiftly flowing Pitiao river. Small brick and stucco homes with red tile roofs dotted the hills.

My husband, 10-year-old son and I were stunned by the wild driving on this and most other Chinese roads, but it was on this narrow byway that we suddenly stopped. Up ahead,  a truck had collided with a passenger car, totally blocking the road. We jumped out to review the situation and surmised that the truck driver, definitely peasant and maybe Tibetan, had tried to race past a business-like Han car driver. The car’s windshield and front end were destroyed, but miraculously no one was hurt. A line of perhaps 150 vehicles, tour buses, and trucks groaning with cabbage formed on either side of the collision. 

Our guide was horrified that instead of sitting in the air-conditioned van, we preferred to mill around, watching the farmers at work watching us, mingling with hundreds of Chinese tourists, enjoying the diversity. Many were on their way to see the famously scenic Four Sisters Valley, many trapped from returning home, some awaiting a panda sighting. When the police finally arrived, they tape-measured, photographed and diagrammed the whole scene, just like in the movies. Then the men in the crowd joined together to pry the truck chassis off the hood of the car and push them off the road. After an hour and a half, it was time to go.

We stayed at the undistinguished concrete Panda Inn which was very clean, comfy and less glitzy than what we’d seen elsewhere in China.  However, the food was very good, the laundry service was very cheap and quick, and it was located next door to the Wolong Giant Panda Breeding Center. Editor’s Note that this hotel is no longer there, but tour operators use several small hotels that have opened in the area.

Meet the Pandas

Sammi woke us early to see the pandas at their most active. The adorable, cuddly black and white creatures we expected, Ailuropoda Melanoleuca or Daxiong Mao (pronounced dah-sh-WING-MAH-oo and meaning “large cat bear” in Chinese), were just that. Wolong is a wonderful natural habitat for about 150 pandas.  Visitors stroll along hillside paths through six large areas of subtly enclosed hillside forest spotted with bamboo, where the animals can play freely, eat from and climb on natural trees.

Visitors will see many young infants in Wolong frisking around the ground level pens and play yards. Their activity is captivating:  pushing and tugging, kissing, wrestling each other off branches, playing and grunting the whole while.  Their active partner play on manmade climbing gyms has surprised naturalists because panda behavior in the wild is customarily shy and solitary.  From the hillside, looking down on humans contorting themselves to videotape frolicking pandas is another of the preserve’s delights.

We were lucky enough to witness through a lab window the bottle feeding of a four-day-old cub, one of twins selected for keeper care while the mother tended to its sibling. The newborn giant panda is far from giant. Typically about four ounces (113 grams), infants are hairless, unable to warm themselves, totally dependent on keeper’s care, and noisy —  they give out a loud, screechy call. A naturalist explained through our translator and guide that in the wild, a mother will only care for one offspring from a litter. At Wolong, one infant is looked after by keepers, then switched when the mom is sleeping, so both offspring will receive maternal attention.

The urge to touch the pandas was overwhelming. For a 1000 RMB (about US$130) contribution, visitors can actually have a photo taken with a panda. My family had some guilt about handling one, but the trainers reassured our guide that pandas enjoy human interaction. I speak for husband and son as well when I say that having a 10-month-old panda in your lap is a life-changing experience.  Editor’s Note: Handling pandas directly is no longer allowed at any of the sanctuaries.

Panda Breeding & Studying Mating Habits

Wolong’s role is critical because the estimated 1,864 giant pandas alive today face extinction from both natural and manmade causes. Once every hundred years the bamboo blooms, mature bamboo plants flower, go to seed and leave pandas with little fresh food. Another peril is the destruction of panda habitat in a very crowded homeland. Pandas dominate the region’s economy because many families are employed in efforts to preserve their habitat.

Some locals inspect passing trucks in search of illegal logging, others walk the forest to prevent land clearing by farmers, others uproot crops to plant new trees. However, after a 32-year study by Michigan State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing (Science 2001), scientists observed that, “panda habitat is not only being destroyed and fragmented, but it’s the high-quality habitat that’s being selected by humans.” Non-profit organizations such as Panda International are dedicated to saving the pandas through donations and staff support in the Giant Panda Breeding facilities.

Wolong remains the epicenter of global efforts to understand why pandas have so much trouble reproducing. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo, where two adult pandas from Wolong are on loan for breeding, have confirmed through DNA testing that giant pandas are related to bears. This increased knowledge of panda biology, improved artificial insemination and mating in captivity has increased the cumulative number of giant panda births at Wolong.  Many pandas stayed in Wolong until the devastating earthquake in 2008, when they were transferred to Bifeng Gorge Base of China Panda Protection and Research Center, where they will remain there until the area is repaired.

Wolong’s breeding success has led scientists from the Smithsonian National Zoo to study its animal environment extensively. They found that Wolong’s females live in the naturally forested hillside throughout the fall, followed in winter by the males who find the females’ scent. During the breeding season in March, the adult pandas are moved into smaller, zoo-like enclosures and housed side by side so females can express their interest in a particular male. We found these barred cages sadly reminiscent of old-style zoos; several had name tags and birth dates which we later discovered were related to the Adopt-A-Panda Program

However the pens are very well kept and apparently have color TVs to show educational videos of giant pandas mating! “We expect to arouse the sexual instincts of giant pandas,” noted Zhang Hemin, Wolong’s director, in an interview we read, “enhance their natural mating ability, and raise their reproductive capacity” with the sex-ed tapes.  We didn’t get to see any.

Learning More about Pandas

As we walked around Wolong more, our son became fascinated by the huge number of bugs and birds, a rarity in most parts of industrially-polluted China. It was obvious to us that having a guide/translator added an enormous amount to the experience. With Sammi, we admired the sophisticated small display about pandas funded by Hong Kong’s Ocean World and spoke with the director about the Adopt-A-Panda Program. For $1,000, we could “adopt” a panda for one year, receive regular reports about his or her welfare, and bestow a name on it for 12 months. From the center’s literature, we learned that it costs US$80,000 to adopt a panda for life.

Later that day, we drove about five miles to the nearest village and the Wolong Panda Museum. Young children might be squeamish about the stuffed pandas and embalmed panda livers in jars, but there are very good exhibits. The museum displays a “trail” through local flora and fauna which puts the reserve’s environment into context, explaining and showing the other mammals, insects, birds and fish in these foothills adjacent to the Tibetan plateau. We were pleased to see George Schaller, a luminary familiar to us from his position with the Wildlife Conservation Society (Bronx Zoo, to many New York families) figure prominently as the key outside researcher to focus the world’s attention on the plight of the panda. At the museum, we also learned that many panda are adopted today by companies such as Ericsson, the Swedish mobile phone giants, and by Hong Kong real estate concerns. An added attraction was the hawk living in the museum’s main atrium (my son loved watching him fly, though I think the museum would rather he move out!) It was apparent that the many visiting school children were as impressed as we were.

Within a few blocks’ walk of the museum, Wolong has a small outdoor market where women costumed in traditional Tibetan style garments sell exotic spices and wok-fried spicy Tibet Fries. With a paper sack full of them, we strolled down the main street and into the few Tibetan crafts and souvenir shops. After a day of walking above the raging Pitiao River, Wolong’s primary water supply, it was fun to find a safe place to walk down the banks and wiggle feet in the clear cold water.

It was lovely and cool as dusk fell. We played Frisbee on the hotel’s lawn. A few local kids who could have belonged to a toy vendor or to a scientist milled around watching, eager to join in. My husband and I gave up our turns to watch six children happily play and run together. 

Suddenly the eldest boy excused himself and went into the hotel. He emerged and gave our son a photo of two pandas he had taken, with his autograph and penpal address on the back. When our son offered him the Frisbee, he shook his head, suggesting it go the youngest girl in the group.

Our son agreed, and returned to the hotel room clutching a keepsake as cherished as his own portrait with his panda friend.

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2 Replies to “Sichuan, China: Panda-ing to the Tourist Trade”

  • Panda center in the city is nice, but pandas in wild is fantastic!

  • anonymous

    If you’re looking to visit pandas without leaving the city, just head over to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. The research base is just a short taxi ride away from the heart of the city and a perfect day trip. I spent three hours there before my evening flight, just enough time to visit everything from the Baby Panda Nursery to Giant Panda Kindergarten. The pandas are adorable and although they didn’t do much (mostly sleeping and eating), none of the visitors, including me, could take their eyes off the slow-moving animals. For 400 RMB (about 53 US dollars), visitors can stand next to and take a picture with a baby panda, but if you want to hold one, be prepared for sticker shock. It costs 1000 RMB, or about 133 US dollars!

    I also recommend stopping and watching the video about the giant panda and the center’s breeding efforts. Visit the less popular red pandas as well. They’re much more energetic than their large black and white counterparts and the kids were excited to see them leaping around and wrestling with one another. Like most other tourist destinations, the breeding center has a souvenir shop near the exit. Stop by and take a look at the cuddly stuffed pandas and t-shirts, but you may want to buy the items at the stands across the street from the breeding center where you can bargain. Be careful when getting on one of the taxis waiting outside. They know that most of the visitors are tourists and will try to rip you off so make sure they start the meter once you get on.

    While in Chengdu, I stayed at Universal House Golden Hotel, a four star hotel not far from the city center. It was inexpensive (I paid around 60 US dollars per night) and the service was wonderful. The front desk was eager to help and recommended two wonderful restaurants, including Huang Cheng Lao Ma which specializes in Sichuan-style hotpot.