What is black, white and red all over? A sunburnt panda. What is the giant panda’s biggest dream? To take a colour photo because they are always black and white. These are just some of the jokes locals share about China’s national animal in Chengdu – city of pandas.
From the moment you arrive in Sichuan province, of which Chengdu is the capital, you’ll see giant pandas everywhere – cake shops, restaurants, clothing stores, hotels – there’s even a giant panda police station.
Critically endangered, there are only about 2000 giant pandas left in the world, 1600 of which live in the wild and 80 per cent are in Sichuan province.
The Chinese name for the giant panda is xiong mao, which literally translates to “bear cat”. Though there are more than 240 varieties of bamboo plants, the giant panda eats just a handful of them.
“I have a joke about the panda’s eating habits,” Wendy Wu Tours guide Chen Yao says. “One day Mr Panda went to a restaurant and ordered a dish of bamboo. After he finished, he took out a gun and shot the waiter. On leaving, the manager stopped him and asked why he shot his waiter and didn’t pay for his meal. The panda said, ‘I am a panda, look it up in the dictionary.’
So the manager took out his dictionary and found the definition of the panda. It says, pandas are rare animals in China, characterised by black and white fur. They like to eat shoots and leaves.”
Several companies offer tourists a chance to come face-to-face with the incredible animal.
Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding and Research Centre, which started in 1987 with just six rescued pandas, is the main tourist site. Now the centre houses more than 140 individually named pandas. Qiao Qiao, Ying Ying, Fu Wa, Si Nian, Si Jun Jun, Jing Yun, Cheng Yi, Mei Bang and Jina Ao are just a few of the giant pandas we met.
Each panda is designated its own lush enclosure in the massive park. The most impressive moment for any visit to the centre is seeing two-month-old babies in a crib.
Here, you can take photographs but not with flash. Photographs with the large bears were allowed until three years ago when four pandas died in Xi’an after they came into contact with a human who carried the canine distemper virus.
“They died from a disease found in dogs,” Chen Yao says. “It won’t hurt a human but the human gave it to the panda and it was deadly.”
Photographs are possible for about $400 at another centre located about two hours’ drive from Chengdu. But medical clearance from a doctor is required. Seeing the creatures in the wild is also possible but it’s a drive of about five hours from Chengdu and the sightings aren’t guaranteed.
“One panda eats 20-30kg of bamboo shoots and leaves every day but digests only 20 per cent of it,” Chen Yao says. “It stays in their stomach for about 45 minutes and then comes out. That’s why they eat a lot and don’t move a lot, to save the energy.”
Birthing rates are low in the wild but in captivity, they’re obviously higher. The centre has seen 10 new babies born this spring and 27 last year (they say this was the most successful season to date).
“The female panda is quite picky about the male panda,” Chen Yao says, laughing. “In the wild, pandas are solitary animals because they eat a lot so once they have a forest to themselves, they don’t want any other pandas to come and share.”
THE WRITER TRAVELLED WITH ASSISTANCE FROM WENDY WU
One panda eats 20-30kg of bamboo shoots every day but digests only 20 per cent of it.