BEARY FUNNY

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - DESTINATION | CANADA - JONATHON MO­RAN

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

PIC­TURE: ISTOCK

One panda eats 20-30kg of bam­boo shoots every day but di­gests only 20 per cent of it.

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