Everybody loves pandas. They’re chubby, fuzzy, funny looking, black and white, they love snapping and chewing bamboo, and they enjoy climbing with their big round bellies  and hanging upside down from tree branches. What’s not to like?

After our amazing experience vis a vis with rescued elephants, I have been trying really hard to find trips where we can interact with the local environment and local animals, ensuring that all these visits are ethical and respectful of animal conservation and rights.

We planned our visit to Chengdu with this goal in mind. I did a lot of research and learned about the  different panda conservation and research centers around China and in Chengdu. I was excited to find that there are several non for profit, government funded organizations which have dedicated the last 15 years to save pandas from extinction. They using different controlled breeding techniques along with specially design wildlife reinsertion programmes to help pandas who have been born and raised in captivity have a smooth transition to their natural environment, and  they ensure they teach the pandas all the skills they will need to find food, defend themselves from predators (sadly, these are mostly human) and most importantly, find a mate with which they can continue the growth of the species.

Perhaps after our experience with the elephants in Chian Mai I have become overly obsessed with the idea of interacting with wildlife in their natural habitat, and this has gotten my expectations very high. When planning our visits to meet pandas, what I mostly wanted to avoid was a zoo like environment. It was difficult to meet my expectations. I also wanted to avoid seeing pandas in an enclosure and hopefully I wanted to volunteer to feed them, care for them, or just be as close as possible to them – of course keeping their emotional and physical wellbeing a priority.

I learned from the Giant Panda Base website all the efforts they do for conservation of the species and all that they have accomplished in the past 10+ years, and felt excited to visit them.

I saw on different blogs that there are half day and full day volunteer programmes where you can interact with the pandas and help take care of them.

As we packed our bags to get to Chengdu, I pictured myself wearing the special blue robes and gloves while feeding a chubby little panda cub some bamboo… It was going to be magical!

So there we were about to enter the Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base… I proudly posed for a photo…

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As we bought our entry tickets (all the money goes to help fund the research) I closely read the rules of the research base: no flash photography, no hoarding the pandas, no loud noises, absolutely no feeding them, among other absolutely reasonable rules that of course we were very committed to following.

Then we entered the premises… And saw crowds and crowds of people…. Tour groups with the guy carrying a red flag in the front, cameras with kilometer long lenses and state of the art flashes, children jumping up and down and screaming of excitement.

I just wanted to cry but I was hopeful that this scenario was only going on in this section of the research base, and not in the back where the pandas are actually located.

we walked through the jungle – like scenario, read all the signs warning against snakes and insects, and were inspired by the wooden signs quoting famous thinkers in history who have said inspiring things about nature.

Crowds zoomed by us, their cameras clicking away. Children in strollers and roller skates whizzed by, pointing and pulling their parents in the direction they wanted to go.

Finally we got to a place labeled “panda enclosure 1”. A glass structure surrounded by wooden view points held a Giant Panda, which we were not able to see because a crowd of children clinched  to the glass as they tapped loudly and their parents took photos … Click click click….

We moved along and were saddened and disappointed, as most panda enclosures were like this – closed environments, with synthetic “gyms”, and one or two pandas laying around, which we could barely see because crowds of people hoarded the glass windows.

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Then we ran into a nursery, where we found a 50 meter long line. Wondering what the fuss was about, we got close to the entrance and noticed that a newborn panda was being exhibited. The idea of a newborn being exhibited was chilling…. But we were there and were even invited to cut the line as we were carrying our own baby with us… In a few minutes (thank god!) we got to see a tiny baby panda who was only 2 weeks old. The line wasn’t aloud to stop, so we could only see him for a few seconds. Sings all over said no flash photography, and after asking if a no flash photo was ok, I was able to take a quick snap shot…. While flashes of at least 10 camaras blinded us all, and the man in the scientist robe on the other side of the glass angrily said NO with an index finger.

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We left that day having seen plenty of pandas, both in closed and opened enclosures. We saw them climbing and hanging head down from trees, rolling over rejoicing over pieces of bamboo, and playfully crawling with each other.

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But I also left feeling very disappointed. I had imagined something very different!

I didn’t let my disappointment take over me and upon arriving at the hotel that night I continued researching about pandas.  On the forums I found another panda research base, one that visitors said was much more “personal”, “quiet”, and “peaceful”, but also much much farther away and difficult to access without your own vehicle. Without thinking it twice – we had gone to Chengdu to see pandas after all! – we arranged for the Chinese version of uber to pick us up early the next morning and to take us to this panda research base.

The feeling there was totally different. There were no loud crowds. There were no tour groups with fancy camaras. There were no children overly excited. There were no long lines.

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We were able to enjoy watching several pandas, mostly being lazy (that’s what pandas do most of the time!), and greedily chewing on bamboo.

We were able to spend time at an exhibition area where we read and saw videos about the research that is being done around the conservation of pandas, the measures that are taken to promote their breeding, and the way they are trained for reinsertion to wild life.

Although I was not able to interact one on one with a panda, because the volunteer program I read about no longer exists, I was happy to have seen these adorable animals and to have learned so much about their conservation.

Moral of the story… As informed as you may be before your travels, and as hard as you try to make these ethical and environmentally friendly, you may still wind up at a zoo… But don’t loose hope and keep trying!

And please, please!!!! If you do end up at a zoo, at least respect the rules that are in place for the wellbeing of the animals.

On another note for those interested in visiting the second Panda research Base: make sure you arrange for your ride back before hand! We did not and ended up waiting at the bus stop for a while. A messy and dirty looking man approached us offering a ride at 400 RMB. Two seconds before we were about to accept, the public bus arrived and took us to the center of the city for 5 RMB each. Do note that this bus is very old, dirty, and does look like it will collapse at any given minute (but don’t worry, it won’t).  We arrived at the city center – luckily right at the central bus station – where we started our investigations on how to get back to Chengdu. We tried our luck with a random line of people and when we got to the window, used our very limited Chinese to ask about buses to Chengdu, and to our surprise, we were at the right line! All we had to do was pay the fare and hop on any of the buses labeled Chengdu (in Chinese characters of course). About one hour later, and absolutely exhausted, we were back in Chengdu and ready to take the subway back to our hotel.

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