AD­VEN­TURES IN PANDA LAND

A NEW NA­TIONAL PARK IN SICHUAN GIVES THE POSTER BEARS FOR IN­TER­NA­TIONAL WILDLIFE CON­SER­VA­TION A HOME TO CALL THEIR OWN – AND GIVES CHI­NESE PANDA TOURISM A MA­JOR BOOST.

Air Canada enRoute - - CONTENTS - BY / PAR GLO­RIA DICKIE

Track­ing bears in Sichuan, home of China’s new Gi­ant Panda Na­tional Park.

OUR GUIDE TANG BING COMES TO A SUD­DEN stop next to a large rock face in the Min Moun­tains of Western China. Af­ter hours trekking along­side small streams and wa­ter­falls through the lush tem­per­ate forests of the Lao­he­gou Na­ture Re­serve, I haven’t seen much be­yond one ven­omous Jer­don’s red spot­ted pit viper hid­ing in the grass. But now Tang points at the ground with his kan­dao, a hooked ma­chete that ex­cels at hack­ing off way­ward tree limbs. Hope­fully not an­other snake, I think. As I move closer, he re­veals his dis­cov­ery: a brick­sized pel­let of poorly di­gested bam­boo shoots, oth­er­wise known as panda poop. Wild panda poop.

Be­fore I can get too ex­cited, Tang qual­i­fies the ex­cre­ment – it’s not fresh, but rather a six-month-old relic. Still, this is as close as most peo­ple will ever get to a wild panda. Thir­teen of the coun­try’s 1,864 wild pan­das are thought to live in­side this 11,000-hectare pri­vate re­serve near the Sichuan-Gansu pro­vin­cial bor­der – the high­est den­sity on the planet. But few of Lao­he­gou’s field re­searchers have ever seen one. Even Tang, who lives in the vil­lage just out­side the re­serve’s metal gate, tells me his last en­counter was back in the 1980s.

Lux­ury travel com­pany WildChina re­cently gained ac­cess to Lao­he­gou and launched the first-ever pub­lic tours, mak­ing me one of the first for­eign­ers to set foot in the park. If I hike out of here with­out an up-close wild panda mo­ment, it’s just my luck. In all my re­port­ing on bear-hu­man re­la­tion­ships, I’ve of­ten nar­rowly missed out on see­ing some charis­matic megafauna: griz­zlies, black bears and po­lar bears. And none of the world’s eight bear species is as beloved – or non­threat­en­ing – as the panda.

To me, pan­das rep­re­sent hope. As the global sym­bol of wildlife con­ser­va­tion, more money has been spent pro­tect­ing pan­das than any other species. To­day, the main threat to their sur­vival is habi­tat loss, com­pli­cated by the fact that wild pan­das are fairly un­adapt­able crea­tures: they eat noth­ing but bam­boo shoots and they are finicky breed­ers, too. Now, in a larger ef­fort to po­si­tion it­self as a leader for cli­mate change and con­ser­va­tion, China is pour­ing funds into panda habi­tats to bol­ster breed­ing and long-term sur­vival in the wild. As a re­sult, the land­scape for pan­das (and panda tourism) is chang­ing fast, with plans to cre­ate the Gi­ant Panda Na­tional Park by 2023 at a cost of nearly $2 bil­lion. Lao­he­gou is one ex­ist­ing re­serve be­ing folded into this new pro­tected area four times the size of Banff

Black and white faces, de­light­fully car­toon­ish with big eyes, are splashed over buses and bill­boards.

Na­tional Park, pro­vid­ing forested cor­ri­dors away from hu­man de­vel­op­ment. The cor­re­spond­ing “panda route” – a black and white Silk Road – in­cludes a new high­way link­ing the re­gion’s four cap­tive panda bases, the park and the panda-themed re­sorts ex­pected to fol­low. Tourism rev­enue, in large part from Chi­nese flock­ing to see their na­tional an­i­mal, far out­weighs the cost of pro­tect­ing the bears. Cue the panda-mo­nium!

THOUGH THEY RE­MAIN VUL­NER­A­BLE IN THE WILD – THEIR STA­TUS

re­cently down­graded from en­dan­gered – the ur­ban panda is thriv­ing in Chengdu. Sichuan’s big­gest city is home to more than eight mil­lion peo­ple, and I see pan­das ev­ery­where. Black and white faces, de­light­fully car­toon­ish with big eyes, are splashed over buses and bill­boards. I stroll past the shops of Kuanzhai An­cient Street, a series of wide and nar­row al­leys mod­elled af­ter the tra­di­tional build­ings of the Qing Dy­nasty, where ven­dors hock every­thing from panda-themed plush back­packs to panda-tufted head­bands – a favourite among teenage girls. Among the siz­zling, tongue-numb­ing pep­per­corns and every­thing-on-a-stick del­i­ca­cies, food stalls ped­dle dumplings with frosted panda faces, their ur­sine fea­tures slowly melt­ing un­der the Sichuan sun.

The Chengdu Re­search Base of Gi­ant Panda Breed­ing, founded in 1987 with just six bears and now hous­ing 176, is the coun­try’s orig­i­nal panda park. To­day it’s the gate­way to panda coun­try. With fruit trees in bloom, balmy tem­per­a­tures and the nurs­ery stuffed with fuzzy, roly-poly cubs reach­ing peak cute­ness, it’s one of Western China’s main draws. All bears re­pro­duce slowly; pan­das are pear-size as new­borns and as non-car­ni­vores, they’ll need up to 13.5 kilo­grams of bam­boo shoots a day once they’re 900 times big­ger. On the drive to the base from the city’s bustling Hi-Tech Zone, I prac­tise my Man­darin with my WildChina guide Dustin Zhang. For laowai, or for­eign­ers, Sichuanese is one of Man­darin’s more dif­fi­cult di­alects, so an English-speak­ing nav­i­ga­tor is a ne­ces­sity. I try out my pro­nun­ci­a­tion of xiong­mao, panda bear. Shung-mao. Dustin laughs and shakes his head fer­vently. My tone is wrong. Sho-ong-mao is panda, he cor­rects me. Shung-mao means hairy chest. The dif­fer­ence is barely de­tectable. Af­ter a few failed rep­e­ti­tions, I shrug. Chabuduo. Close enough, as the Chi­nese say.

Open-air shut­tles – panda-themed with black cir­cles painted around the head­lights – ferry vis­i­tors through bam­boo tun­nels

to the gi­ant panda en­clo­sures. Bougainvil­lea trees bloom a bright fuch­sia, and bam­boo leaves rain down on us, in­stantly scut­tled into dust­pans by stead­fast sweep­ers. As the sky clears, I no­tice that vis­i­tors have largely fore­gone the ubiq­ui­tous anti-pol­lu­tion face masks worn in large cities in China in favour of colour­ful panda hats. At Sun­shine Nurs­ery Room, the panda pa­parazzi, as I’ve come to call the le­gions of do­mes­tic tourists dou­ble-fist­ing iPhone cam­eras and SLRs, press against the glass. Nine cubs are tum­bling, snug­gling and munch­ing on bam­boo, obliv­i­ous to their en­thralled au­di­ence. One wad­dles by and in­stantly col­lapses on its furry friend. I join the cho­rus of “awww” that floats up from the crowd – un­der­stood in any lan­guage.

Af­ter watch­ing panda bears dine in style, it’s time do the same — by sam­pling the prov­ince’s fa­mous hot­pot, a bub­bling, ta­ble-top mix­ture of spices and oil. At Ba Shu Da Jiang restau­rant next to leafy Peo­ple’s Park where re­tirees waltz and prac­tise Tai Chi, I dunk pieces of lo­tus root, braided tofu and hard-boiled quail eggs (a level 10 chop­sticks chal­lenge) in a drag­onem­bla­zoned pot. Tak­ing in­spi­ra­tion from the morn­ing’s en­ter­tain­ment, I sub­merge a few slices of bam­boo.

A SMALL ARMY OF FURRY DIG­NI­TARIES HAS BEEN BRED BY THE

Chengdu re­search base over the past three decades to bol­ster China’s soft power, fig­u­ra­tively and lit­er­ally. Many of these 261 pan­das have been dis­patched to in­ter­na­tional zoos, re­ward­ing trade part­ners as to­kens of for­eign diplo­macy (think: Justin Trudeau hug­ging two cubs in the photo op seen ’round the world). When they en­ter their twi­light years, most re­turn to a panda re­tire­ment sanc­tu­ary in Du­jiangyan, an hour’s drive from Chengdu through swerv­ing traf­fic where lanes seem to serve merely as sug­ges­tions.

Re­port­ing for duty at the Du­jiangyan base at 8:30 a.m., I’m handed an over­sized blue jump­suit with the words “Panda Hus­bandry Learner” em­broi­dered on the chest pocket. To­day, I’ll be swap­ping a few hours of back-break­ing man­ual labour – and $160 – for the chance to hand-feed a gi­ant panda. My first task is to shovel up day-old panda poop from res­i­dent panda Fei Fei’s en­clo­sure while the su­per­vi­sor points out all the spots I’ve missed. The green foothills of Mount Qingcheng, one of the birth­places of Tao­ism, loom large be­hind me, though the mist has yet to burn off the sa­cred moun­tain’s peak. Panda poop, you’ll be pleased to know, isn’t very odor­if­er­ous, mak­ing the job eas­ier than the one to fol­low.

Along with a cou­ple from Cal­i­for­nia, I’m sent to a stone court­yard where we’re in­structed to whack three-me­tre long bam­boo

poles against the pave­ment in order to split them into smaller pieces. Pan­das, it seems, are very par­tic­u­lar about din­ing pre­sen­ta­tion. And then, it’s the mo­ment we’ve all been wait­ing for: feed­ing time. Fei Fei, a 23-year-old panda born in cap­tiv­ity at Sichuan’s Wo­long panda base, scoots her butt up against one side of the cage, sit­ting like Bud­dha, as I dain­tily push slices of car­rot, ap­ple and spe­cial panda bread through the bars into her open mouth. This is the clos­est I’ve been to a bear, and I’m smit­ten: It’s im­pos­si­ble to stop smil­ing as Fei Fei munches away con­tent­edly. And this isn’t even the para­mount panda ex­pe­ri­ence: For an ad­di­tional $400 to help keep the base op­er­at­ing, I’m told, vol­un­teers can have their own Trudeau mo­ment — a 15-sec­ond hug with a real live panda bear.

Faced with the choice be­tween cud­dling a cap­tive panda and a brief glimpse of a wild one, I think I’d go with the lat­ter. So much of our con­cep­tion of panda bears stems from the clumsy, af­fec­tion­ate be­hav­iour of those in cap­tiv­ity. The ef­forts to pop­u­lar­ize the panda (by ap­peal­ing to tourists and ren­der­ing them into cutesy car­toons) may be help­ing them sur­vive, but they’ve been robbed of their wild­ness.

On my fi­nal night at the Lao­he­gou Guest­house, a cross be­tween a ho­tel and re­search sta­tion near the en­trance of the re­serve, a rain­storm hits the moun­tains. Gi­ant drops pat­ter on the pagoda roof and drench the care­fully cul­ti­vated gar­dens. Out on the cov­ered teak bal­cony, I sip “panda tea” — buck­wheat tea fertilized with panda dung that tastes more salty than sweet. WildChina is plan­ning more tours of this still largely pri­vate re­serve, and work­ers say they’ve been see­ing more and more bears, es­pe­cially on the trail cam­eras. Here, in the shadow of the Min Moun­tains, bears can still be bears. This feels like the real wild China to me.

PHO­TOS BY / DE ALGIRDAS BAKAS

TOP, LEFT TO RIGHT Lao­he­gou Na­ture Re­serve guide Tang Bing cuts to the chase; take your pick of the panda plushies on Jin Li pedes­trian street. OPEN­ING PAGE Get­ting up close and per­sonal with Ying Ying at the Du­jiangyan panda sanc­tu­ary. EN HAUT, DE GAUCHE À DROITE Tang Bing, guide dans la réserve na­turelle de Lao­he­gou, sait trancher quand c’est néces­saire ; trou­vez toutous les pan­das pos­si­bles sur la rue pié­ton­nière Jin Li. EN OUVERTURE Ren­con­tre in­time avec Ying Ying au sanc­tu­aire de pan­das de Du­jiangyan.

BOT­TOM, LEFT TO RIGHTA misty morn­ing at the Lao­he­gou Na­ture Re­serve; that look when you’ve just seen your first panda. EN BAS, DE GAUCHE À DROITE Un matin brumeux dans la réserve na­turelle de Lao­he­gou ; voir un panda fait tout un ef­fet.

ABOVE The bear ne­ces­si­ties: Street ven­dors flaunt their wares out­side the Du­jiangyan panda sanc­tu­ary. CI-DESSUS Vous en voudrez tou­jours peluche : des vendeuses de rue ex­posent leurs pro­duits de­vant le sanc­tu­aire de pan­das de Du­jiangyan.

TOP Panda pa­parazzi line up a shot at the Chengdu re­search base. OP­PO­SITE PAGE Shoots and mur­murs: it’s snack time for Xiao Yaiou in Chengdu. EN HAUT Des tonnes de pa­parazzi avec un seul ob­jec­tif au cen­tre de recherche de Chengdu. PAGE DE GAUCHE Pousses, pousses, pousses : c’est l’heure de la col­la­tion pour Xiao Yaiou à Chengdu.

LEFT Dip­ping into a Sichuan hot­pot at Ba Shu Da Jiang restau­rant in Chengdu. ABOVE It’s easy to lose your head with all these pan­das around. À GAUCHE Fon­dante fon­due Sichuan au Ba Shu Da Jian, à Chengdu. CI-DESSUS At­ten­tion, être en­touré d'au­tant de pan­das peut faire per­dre la tête.

ABOVE A street mu­si­cian poses in Kuan Zhai An­cient Street, a his­toric and cul­tural area in Chengdu. TOP The Chendgu re­search base is also home to a few red pan­das. OP­PO­SITE PAGE The Kung Fu Panda char­ac­ter Po was in­spired by Du­jiangyan res­i­dent Gong Zai. CI-DESSUS Une mu­si­ci­enne de rue prend la pose dans Kuan Zhai Al­leys, le cen­tre his­torique et cul­turel de Chengdu. EN HAUT Le cen­tre de recherche de Chengdu ac­cueille aussi quelques pan­das roux. PAGE DE DROITE Po, le per­son­nage de Kung Fu Panda est in­spiré de Gong Zai, rési­dent de Du­jiangyan.

ABOVE Zhi Zhi perches in her favourite tree at the Chengdu re­search base. CI-DESSUS Zhi Zhi est per­chée dans son ar­bre fa­vori au cen­tre de recherche de Chengdu.

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