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January 5, 2003

Where Little Pandas Come From


LUO YU pushed open the door to a small room strewn with bamboo. Ying Ying, slumped in a corner with her legs splayed out on the floor, wasn't moving. But when a worker carried water to her she leaned over to drink and something tiny, with tightly closed eyes and skin speckled with short white hairs, wriggled from under her forearm.

The 3-day-old cub, the first captive giant panda born in 2002, was smaller than my hand and weighed 162 grams, less than a coffee mug. It was entirely defenseless, and its 11-year-old mother would hold it for three weeks.

A breeze blew through the room and rustled the bamboo. A river rushed below. Ying Ying licked her fur and folded her forearms and the newborn giant panda, one of about 1,000 left in the world, took another breath.

It was mid-July when I caught a bus from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in China, to the Wolong Nature Reserve, a park that was set up in 1963 to protect about 150 wild giant pandas. Wolong, encompassing 800 square miles, is some 80 miles from Chengdu, and soon the bus took us out of the city's stifling heat and passed through a patchwork of rice paddies and cornfields.

China's countryside has a rhythm all its own: ubiquitous squat buildings with blue glass windows and pink tile walls, testaments to China's rush to modernize, but also the timeless lives of the peasants. From the bus windows I saw countless families waiting out the hottest part of the day under the shade of thick bamboo stands while water buffaloes cooled themselves in ponds ringed by tiger lilies. We left the Chengdu Plain and climbed into the mountains, the temperature dropped, and soon we passed a tattered billboard announcing the Wolong Reserve.

Perched at the edge of the Tibetan plateau, Wolong is one of six mountainous areas in Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu Provinces that are what remains of a panda habitat once stretching as far south as Myanmar. Some 3,000 people, most of them Tibetan and Qiang farmers, live in Wolong's main valley. We passed many local people working in fields of cabbages and potatoes among scattered stands of fir trees and rhododendrons.

An hour from the reserve entrance, we pulled to a stop in front of a collection of red brick and white tile buildings, the Hetaoping Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda. Researchers here have been given a mandate to save the panda, and through China's largest panda breeding program the center aims eventually to reintroduce captive pandas to the wild.

When the center was set up in 1979, shortly after the end of Mao Zedong's disastrous Cultural Revolution, it ran on a shoestring budget and had little success. Before 1991 researchers recorded the birth of but one animal, and it died before reaching adulthood.

A friend had given me the name of Li Desheng, the director of Hetaoping's veterinary hospital and a longtime resident of Wolong. He shook his head remembering those early years. "When I first came here in the 1980's the center was in a bad shape," he said. "The road was terrible and the buildings were run-down. Lots of workers wouldn't stay."

Things have improved since then, and Ying Ying's delivery was the first of eight expected this year (after my departure, another panda gave birth). Mr. Li, who wears heavy glasses and speaks near-perfect English honed on trips to the United States, said that Wolong's researchers had to overcome three major difficulties: pandas have trouble mating, pandas can conceive for only a few days each year, and many pandas die young.

"In captivity, only about 10 percent of male pandas can mate," he said. "So we have a project to train them." The regimen involves putting young males in pens with females in heat, making them exercise their back legs (pandas mate standing up), and showing them videos of pandas breeding. Mr. Li explained that young pandas learn by watching, and added, "Maybe when they see the videos they'll think about how they can do the same thing."

The methods may raise a few eyebrows and bring an occasional joke about trying Champagne and Barry White music, but they are grounded in science and they are working. In 1990 the breeding center had only 15 animals, all of them donated or captured; today it has more than 60.

Mr. Li wanted to show me how researchers are conquering another problem, and he led me across a bridge over the crystal-clear Pitiao River and through the main gate. The center gets 15,000 visitors a year. Most are from China but increasingly there are foreigners too, and as Mr. Li took me back between small, grassy pens where pandas lolled, chewing bamboo stalks and leaves, we passed several tour groups delightedly gaping at a panda that climbed halfway up a tree, slid off and then tumbled down a hill in the bright midmorning sun.

We stopped at a one-story building where a young woman held her hands under a blanket in a plastic incubator. Giant pandas often give birth to twins but in captivity will care for only one. So, Mr. Li explained, researchers have had to learn to raise the babies. The woman, acting as a mother for Ying Ying's abandoned cub, pulled back the blanket, and a tiny panda reared its head as if peering about with its sightless eyes. I was given only a few seconds to look at the 3-day-old to protect it from drafts, and the woman put the blanket back down and carefully caressed the infant.

Pandas are one of the main attractions for visitors to Chengdu; Wolong, a two-hour ride from the city, makes it onto more and more trip itineraries, as do the Chengdu Zoo and the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, where there are more than a dozen pandas, a few miles away.

I had visited Wolong in 1996, at the beginning of two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, and there was little tourist infrastructure then. The only hotels and restaurants were 10 miles away in Wolong town, there were no English-speaking guides, and the animals were kept in clean but small pens.

Officials have since discovered the tourism value of pandas, and the government has poured money into the place. There is a basic but comfortable new hotel, the Panda Inn, next to the center, which enables guests to see the animals first thing in the morning, when they are most active, and in Wolong town a new museum offers everything from a collection of panda organs soaking in formaldehyde to a walking trail showing local wildlife (the reserve supports some 100 mammal species, 4,000 plant species and 280 bird species).

But the most important additions from a tourist's point of view are the several large open-air enclosures housing the animals. An elevated trail skirts the side of a cliff face above and behind the pens, giving great views of the pandas. Besides pleasing tourists, the pens are big enough to simulate natural panda habitat. Mr. Li said the center hoped to use them to prepare captive animals for return to the wild. The most popular enclosure with visitors is the one for young pandas. When Mr. Li and I stopped there, six pint-size giant pandas were rolling over one another to the amusement of a couple from Singapore.

Pandas have achieved worldwide fame in the last 50 years or so, but they have held an important place in China for centuries. China's earliest collection of poetry, written more than 3,000 years ago, talks about men giving the pelt of a pi, saying it came from an animal that looked like a tiger or a leopard and was almost certainly a panda. And by A.D. 210 the giant panda was considered a symbol of strength and bravery and the emperor kept several in his Xian garden. The panda was so revered that when the mother of one emperor died, the skull of a panda was buried with her, according to a 1985 book by George Schaller, the American animal behavior specialist.

Unfortunately, the distinction proved more bane than boon; pandas began to be hunted mercilessly. Westerners joined the chase in 1869, when a French missionary came across a pelt and wrote that he wanted "to kill this carnivore" and send its skin back to France. A string of Western hunters followed, and by the 1940's the giant panda was in danger of extinction.

Between World War II and the Chinese Civil War there was little time to worry about the panda's plight. It wasn't until 1974, after several bamboo species died in northern Sichuan and more than 100 pandas starved, that the world took notice. China and the World Wildlife Fund teamed up to save the species.

According to Mr. Li, the veterinarian at the center, people are the biggest threat to pandas. Sichuan has many people (Chinese government data from 1997 show that 86 million people were living in the province, roughly a third of the entire United States population), and as farmers clear land and forage for wood, the range of the giant panda shrinks. In the wild, pandas live in dense bamboo groves at elevations of 10,000 to 15,000 feet and each day eat as much as 50 pounds of bamboo. The Chinese government has encouraged local people to leave the reserve and has provided subsidized electricity to cut their dependence on wood, but outside the center I watched farmers working fields that were once part of the panda range.

The farms have pushed the wild pandas living in the reserve farther into the mountains, some of which rise to nearly 20,000 feet, and even though there are hiking trails, the odds of seeing an animal in the wild are virtually zero - even Mr. Schaller, who spent a year at Wolong studying pandas in the 1980's, searched for two months before he caught sight of one.

Still, the scenery makes a hike well worthwhile, and I set off for a long walk in the afternoon. In 1996 a guide had pointed out panda droppings to me during a hike in the Hero Valley, a steep gully that follows a tumbling river upward for a couple hours and then tracks a ridge into deep pine forests, but the trail head (marked on maps for sale at the breeding center) was a 40-minute taxi ride away. So I just walked west on the main road and found a footpath, one of many used by local people, tracing a brook. I followed it north until the valley closed around me and all I could hear was wind and falling water, and magnificent green-blue birds with exuberant tails darted through the sunny air.

The next morning, before I caught a bus back to Chengdu, I went back to the research center and watched two pandas slumped in the middle of a large clearing full of spruce trees and rhododendrons. They grabbed bamboo stalks between grooves in their paws and their sixth digits, pads of skin referred to as pseudo-thumbs, and stripped the leaves off, holding them in their mouths.

As they ate they seemed almost human; perhaps that explains why they've received more attention than any of the thousands of other endangered species around the world. Or maybe it's as George Schaller wrote, that the giant panda has become "almost a mythical creature in which legend and reality merge." Actually, I think a researcher I met in 1996 had it right: simply, pandas are beautiful.

Preservation and Reservations

Finding Pandas

The Hetaoping research center, telephone (86) 837-624-6607, is open daily year round from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a break from noon to 1. Summer is the best time to see baby pandas. The entrance ticket, good for a day, costs $4 (prices at 8.3 yuan to the dollar) and includes admission to the panda museum. English-speaking guides can be hired for a few dollars at either place.

Visitors can also see pandas at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base (Xiongmao Jidi), (86) 8351-6748, just north of Chengdu, open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. It's best to get there by taxi, for about $5; entrance is $1.50.

Getting Around

With direct flights available from all of China's major cities, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and Seoul, most tourists fly to Chengdu. In Chengdu most hotels can organize a car and driver to Wolong, as can Tianfu International Travel, (86) 28-8544-0553, In April through October the agency offers two-day trips leaving every Thursday for about $50 a person including transportation and a guide. During the summer a private car and driver runs about $75 a day. Buses for Wolong leave the Chadianzi Bus Station, (86) 8750-6610, every day at 11:40 a.m.; tickets are $3.

Accommodation and Food

The Panda Inn, (86) 837-624-3028, next door to the Wolong research center, is clean and quiet; doubles with private bathrooms start at about $20. It also has a Sichuanese restaurant, where a meal is about $5. For large groups the hotel can organize performances of traditional song and dance and outdoor goat roasts. There are fewer hotels and restaurants in Wolong town; the 15-minute ride there from the research center is a few dollars.

In Chengdu the four-star Amara Hotel (Anguo Jiudian), 2 Taishenbei Road, (86) 28-8692-2233, is a bargain at $60 a night and is close to the city center. For great Western food (about $10 a meal) and information about Chengdu and Wolong, try the Sunflower Café, on Renminnan Road, across from the United States Consulate.

CRAIG SIMONS, a freelance writer, lives in Chengdu, China.

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