When Tai Shan, affectionately called Butterstick because of it tiny dimensions at birth, was born at the Washington DC National Zoo in 2005, he became an instant rock star. From the giant panda’s birth until his departure to China four years later, he won the hearts of millions of visitors from around the world. Tai Shan and his parents were the extent of my exposure to pandas. So I was really excited about my pending visit to the Panda Research Base of Giant Pandas in Cheng du, China. And my anticipation was amply rewarded.
The average life of a species is five million years. The giant panda species, more uniquely adaptable than other species, has survived for more than 80 million years. Today, however, their survival is in jeopardy. Less than 2,000 of the species are left mostly in the Sichuan, Shaanix and Gansu provinces in China. About 1600 of the lovable bears live in the wild, and another 300 live in zoos and breeding centers around the world such as the Washington National Zoo. Eighty seven of them live at the Cheng du Panda Research Base. The base also has several Red Pandas, black swans and many bird species.
The survival of the species is getting a big boost by zoologists and volunteers at the base. They use sperm collection, insemination and message stimulation to increase live births from a species with a breeding period extending just over ten years. At birth, baby giant pandas weigh nearly 1,000th the weight of its mother and are about seven inches long. Biologically, they are considered premature at birth resulting in a survival rate in the wild that is very small. So deliveries and live births at the panda base are closely monitored by base staff.
The base houses pandas in all stages of development from newborns to adults. Visitor traffic was very light on the day of my early morning arrival at the base in October, 2012. As the morning progressed, the crowd steadily increased. Visitors gathered in clusters along the fenced enclosures aggressively vying for position to get the best photo whenever the target of their affection was spotted.
What they saw were either solitary giant pandas or those in small groups up to four or five. In the wild panda live a primarily solitary life and the breeding base is large enough to simulate that behavior to some degree.
Since we arrived early in the day, the pandas were busy chomping on bamboo which comprises 99% of their diet. Their large molar teeth and strong jaw muscles are ideal for crushing the tough, fibrous bamboo. Some of them sat in an upright position similar to a human sitting on the floor while others lay on their back while chomping away on bamboo stems. Giant pandas eat up to 16 hours each day so finding a comfortable position is an absolute necessity.
By the time my group reached the nursery which houses the newborns still under the watchful eye of the center’s staff, the queue had grown to a wait time of more than 15 minutes just to reach the entrance. Once inside, we saw two baby pandas. One of them appeared to be perhaps a month old and was napping on its belly in an incubator used to regulate its body temperature. The other, perhaps two months old, was napping on a pink towel nestled in a small basket. Despite the long queue, visitors got only a fleeting glimpse of the cute little bears since a security guard proactively urged visitors to keep moving.
There was no queue at the Red Panda enclosure. However, these tree-climbing raccoon lookalikes had finished the morning meal and were napping high up on a tree limb. Red Pandas are also an endangered species; however, they survive and breed well in captivity. Unfortunately for me, they simply refused to pose for a photo and, in fact, seemed to be hiding their face.
The mountain forests in western China are the giant panda’s natural habitat, a habitat that has diminished in recent years due to farming, forest clearing and other development. Much of that habitat is recreated on the grounds of the 106 hectares acre breeding center. Further expansion is planned.
More than 90% of the grounds are covered with vegetation including bushes and 10,000 clumps of bamboo which comprises 99% of the panda’s diet. The remainder of the grounds is covered with shady trees, flower beds, wandering pedestrian paths and Swan Lake (inhabited by black swans and actually in the shape of a swan)
I was hoping that Tai Shan would be among the many giant pandas I saw during my visit. Later I learned that, he resides at the Bifengxia Panda Base in Ya'an City, another breeding base in China.
Giant Panda Video
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maximize video quality (small wheel
in lower right corner of screen)
If you go:
Opening hours - 8:00 am to 6:00 pm year round. The best time to arrive is before 10:00am since that’s when the pandas are eating and are most active. Also, large tour groups and children on school field trips begin arriving after 10:00am.
Admission - Less than $10 USD per a person, groups and school students receive a discount
Guided tours - Available in Chinese, English, Japanese and Catonese (reservations required) and portable audio guide equipment for a fee
Tour bus - Available for a fee. They stop at all major panda enclosures and can shorten a visit to about 1.5 hours instead of the three hours by foot.
Museum & Postal Services - The Panda Museum and a post office are located near the Base entrance where you can buy panda postcards and mail them.
Handicap accessible - The tour guide service station at the Base entrance provides wheel chairs, baby carriages and crutches. Pathways are paved and smooth.
Picture with a panda- For about $220 USD you can have your photo taken sitting beside a panda. One of the base staff will use your camera and snap away for your less than five minute visit. That price includes a tote bag with a sweatshirt, a DVD about pandas and certificate documenting your visit.
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