The Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding

Cubs spend a lot of time playing at the panda base. In the wild, pandas only rear a single cub at a time so cubs typically play with their mothers rather than siblings.

For the past week I’ve finally gotten my opportunity to experience the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.  I’ve had a variety of experiences at the base—including daily opportunities to see giant and red pandas.

For two days this week I’ve participated in a training program for conservation education summer camp counselors.  Next week I’ll be joining one staff member from the Conservation Education Department and six undergraduate/ graduate student counselors in two summer programs in rural panda reserves.  The student counselors have been recruited from a network of clubs, called Green SOS, present on many college campuses.  They’ll be assisting the base staff during the camp to alleviate staff workloads and to help bring young adults into the conservation education field.  Our trainings included a combination of biology, educational techniques and games to get children excited about nature.  The children in these camps (8-12 year olds) live close to two protected areas, Heizhugou and Mabian, which are natural panda habitats.  The camps will last three days at each location and include nature hikes, bird watching, games, educational activities about wildlife, and a final production or talent show.  My contribution (as someone who does not speak Mandarin) will be teaching English each day through games and activities.  I’m excited to see these other regions of the province and work with the other students.

The counselors for our summer camps in Heizhugou and Mabian, including me (far left), Professor Sarah Bexell (second from left), and panda base staff member Liu Fei (behind banner in green shirt), and students from various Green SOS clubs.

I’ve already had an opportunity to visit another panda habitat outside of the city, Dujianyan.  Dujianyan, or Panda Valley, is the field research site for the Chengdu panda base.  It is located over an hour outside of the city in between two mountainous ridges.  In the wild, panda’s typically live on mountain ridges and are native to areas such as Panda Valley.  The site is relatively recently constructed and no pandas live on the ridges currently.  I visited the location with members of the Conservation Education Department as members from a teen summer camp will be visiting there for several days.  The camp is similar to those offered in Heizhugou and Mabian, except it is for teenage students near Chengdu.  We toured the facility and met with staff to organize details of the camp.  Touring the facility involved an hour-long nature walk where we saw wildlife such as snakes, salamanders, and caterpillars (including both benign and the venomous/poisonous snakes and caterpillars).  Currently the site only has several pandas but plans to expand the scope of their work.

A view of Dujianyan, or Panda Valley, the field research site of the Chengdu panda base

Additionally this week the base hosted two biologists from the Chester Zoo, Roger and Simon.  The Chester Zoo, a partner of the base, has given grants to the base and nearby nature reserves to expand education, rehabilitate enclosures, and fund various projects on the reserves.  For example, they have funded alternative economies for residents near the reserves to deter from collective wildlife products (bamboo, mushrooms, and timber) and constructed clean-burning gas powered stoves to reduce logging.  They’ve also structured their funding to build the capacity of the rural reserves, increasing collaboration between reserves and building partnerships with surrounding communities.  They visited the panda base on Friday to see how several grant projects came to fruition and discuss potential future projects.

In between my trainings, visits, and tours I had opportunities to explore the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding.  The base is an extensive park that includes a lake, egret nesting colonies, restaurants, and a panda cinema in addition to the giant and red pandas themselves.  Adult giant pandas do not live together and leave their mothers once they become “adolescent” sub-adults (between 1-5 years old).  As a result, cubs on the base interact with each other or with their mothers but adults typically have their own enclosures.  All told there are over a dozen enclosures and quite a few panda cubs on the base.  I had an opportunity to see them active in the early-mid-morning period when they typically begin their long day of eating.  I had a blast watching the pandas but honestly my favorite part of the base was the second red panda enclosure.  In this area, many red pandas live together in a large enclosure.  A boardwalk for visitors runs through the middle of the enclosure and has many openings in the fence so the red pandas can move freely about.  Regularly accustomed to people, I had several red pandas walk within inches of me (they’re roughly larger than an average house cat but smaller than most dogs)!

I had several days to explore the base through opportunities to collect research data for an upcoming exhibit.  The panda base and the Chengdu Zoo will partner to create an exhibit on the international wildlife trade, featuring information on how wildlife is used for food, medicine, or curios—or harmed in the process of other forms of trade.  Over 600 surveys of native-Chinese visitors will be conducted in the coming months.  My role was to begin surveying English-speakers (on a smaller scale) to gauge their interest or knowledge in this field.  It is important to note that while China is the largest consumer of wildlife products, the United States is the second largest consumer!  Unfortunately I won’t be able to see this exhibit as it is just in the planning stage but I am excited to learn from the data I collected.

My visits to the panda base are largely over now and I am headed out to the rural reserves shortly!

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