WE only came for the pandas. Thirty-six straight hours on a train from Shanghai, across the interior of China, almost to the border of Tibet, on “hard sleeper” beds in smoky and crowded compartments. There is no question of the trip being worth it, because there are pandas at the end of it. Hundreds of them. Or at least 108 of them, according to the last count at the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Centre in Sichuan Province, including 12 new cubs that were born there over this past summer. There are other reasons to visit Sichuan – the ultra-spicy food, the mountains and plains, the fact that Chengdu itself is one of the more green and pleasant cities in China (though also under massive and rapid development). And there are other places to look for pandas in that province, where over 80% of the estimated 1,596 remaining members of their species are now live within its various nature reserves. That last national survey was conducted in 2003, and most experts are confident that the panda population has grown since then.
But the Chengdu centre, sometimes simply known as the Panda Base, is the only place on earth where so many can be seen at once, up close. The prospect of this has been drawing travellers thousands of miles out of their way since the facility opened to the public in 1993. We arrive in the early morning mist, at the same time as dozens of others, everyone in rented jeeps and minivans, accompanied by drivers and guides who have told us all the same thing – the pandas are liveliest just before breakfast. Even so, we are greeted with a yawn. The first Giant Panda we have ever encountered outside a zoo is lying flat on his back inside a very zoo-like enclosure, his legs splayed to expose the lie that these creatures are painfully modest.
It is probably asking too much of any one panda to be a dignified ambassador for his species, and perhaps it was unfair to expect this base to be something wilder and less manicured than a tourist attraction. Admission fees and visitor donations actually fund the research and breeding programmes that go on behind the scenes here. In return, the animals are presented in a crowd-pleasing arrangement, dispersed into small groups of mature males and females, cubs and “sub-adults” across 92 acres of parkland inlaid with ponds, avenues, and gift shops.
A few other vulnerable species are also in residence, including South China tigers, golden monkeys, and the fun-sized red pandas who prove almost as popular as their bigger bearish cousins because they are that much friskier. But if all the children wearing giant panda-head hats are disappointed to find the real things still sleeping, or sitting half-hidden in thickets of bamboo, eating armfuls of the stuff, then it doesn’t show. They seem to agree that even the laziest panda is a mesmerising pleasure to watch, and gather around the enclosures like adults around a baby’s crib, where every little twitch provokes a disproportionate gasp of delight. We grown-ups find it no less difficult to suppress our own involuntary squeals, especially at the glass wall of the in-house incubator, behind which a two-week-old cub is burrowing under his blanket so that we can only see his still-pink mousy tail and tiny kicking feet. Through her blue surgical facemask, breeder Mei Yan tells us that the newborn – the first of several due to different mothers in the following weeks – has not been named yet, so I secretly christen him Guinness, in honour of his colour-to-be.
(The naming of pandas can be a diplomatic issue, as when China offered a set of twins to a zoo in Taiwan with the politically charged names Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, which taken together mean “reunification”.) Young Guinness is one of 161 cubs to be born at this base since it began operations with only six pandas almost 25 years ago. Most of them have survived to maturity, with a single fertile female called Mei-Mei producing more than 30 healthy cubs over four generations of offspring. Some have since been loaned out to foreign wildlife parks, others stayed here to have babies of their own. In the educational film screening over at the Panda Story Cinema, this process is described as a matter of two pandas “falling in love”, a euphemism that doesn’t quite cover the uncomfortable science and technology of artificial insemination, the cryo-preservation of embryos, the harvesting of sperm from male pandas by use of a device that looks like an electric cattle-prod.
The bottom-line remains that the giant panda might already be extinct without the drastic interference of human beings. The flipside is that they would not be so endangered if not for our activities. Among the many things we learn in the on-site museum is that pandas used to be wide-roaming, meat-eating bears from China’s snowier regions (which accounts for their black-and-white camouflage), whose territory shrank into forests where bamboo was the only abundant food source. Bamboo provides so little nutrition that pandas need a lot of it.
They slowly lost the metabolic energy to fight, or to mate. And then we began to cut down their trees. The largely passive animal that we find so cute has come a long, sad way from the ferocious carnivore that Emperor Huang supposedly sent into battle 4000 years ago – a painted mural on the museum wall shows a giant panda getting stuck into the forces of his rival, Emperor Yan. Certain conservationists have recently suggested that the effort to save this species is expensive, impractical, and purely sentimental. They say there is no point in breeding captive pandas here at Chengdu when too little is left of their natural habitat to ever sustain large numbers in the wild.
But the argument against this programme is almost impossible to accept while looking at the living results of it. The pandas make their own case by minding their own business, without any special pleading or attention-seeking. One particular “sub-adult” provides the most inadvertent entertainment – first comedy, by climbing so awkwardly up a tall tree inside his enclosure, then suspense when he cannot get down again. His human audience holds its collective breath while he dangles from a branch, legs pedalling in mid-air. We all shout “oh no!” in many different languages when he falls off, into a bush. And we cheer when he shuffles out again, unharmed and apparently unembarrassed. It is easier, at such close proximity, to understand the urge to climb the fence and cuddle one of these creatures. Several Chinese have attempted it in recent years, and a few of them picked the wrong panda – a male named Gu Gu at Beijing zoo is now world famous for mauling no fewer than three fans whose affection got the better of their judgement. For a fee of 1000 RMB, it’s possible to cuddle a smaller and more manageable specimen at Chengdu, and it’s tempting for those who can afford it, but it’s better to remember that even baby pandas were not built for hugging. At the Panda Base, you learn to see these animals for the first time.
Their faces are only so round and endearing because of the powerful jaw-bones underneath, which were once used for rending flesh. The pandas may not have forgotten this, and sometimes they remind us. Their continued existence is precarious, and mysterious. And funny as they can be, they also make you want to cry. In evolutionary terms, the giant panda’s time has long since passed. But sentimental creatures that we are, we want to hold them, and not let them go.