CHINA’S BEAR NECESSITIES

The Chinese are not known to be great animal lovers, but in stunning Sichuan province you would discover why the endangered giant panda is their national treasure. And if you can tear yourself away from all that cuteness, there are plenty of other attractions and distractions.

pandatraditional play

In the space of just a few hours, it is impressive how much a giant panda can defecate. I am inside five-year-old Yoaxin’s enclosure, using a shovel to chase enormous floating pellets of compressed orange mush around a pond.

As I skilfully scoop the mess into a bucket, I wonder if US first lady Michelle Obama, who recently visited the Sichuan province’s most famous residents, opted to roll up her sleeves to pick up panda poop as part of her official duties, probably not.

But having enrolled at the Bifengxia Panda Conservation Centre as a voluntary panda-keeper for the day, I am ready to get my hands dirty.

As one of the world’s most endangered species, whose existence now depends heavily on conservation efforts, the rarest member of the bear family has earned adoration from wildlife lovers worldwide.

Earlier this year, in Scotland’s Edinburgh Zoo the resident giant panda Tian Tian, on loan from the Chinese government, was artificially inseminated, with hopes she will give birth this month or in September. But panda fans eager to see the animals in their homeland can now do so with greater ease, thanks to increased flights from a variety of different airlines to the panda capital, Chengdu.

According to a 2003 census by the Chinese State Forestry Bureau, there were 1596 giant pandas in the wild with 83 percent of the population found in the Sichuan province. (More recent figures are expected soon, but have not yet been published.) Three hundred of those bears can be found in reserves such as Bifengxia and Chengdu’s Giant Panda Research Base.

Seeing pandas in the wild is almost impossible; solitary creatures that roam in areas of 20 sq km, they are often only captured by camera traps. Plans are under way to reopen the mountain Wolong retreat, destroyed in a 2008 earthquake, but in the meantime, a good alternative are the bamboo hills of Bifengxia in Ya’an, 150 km from Chengdu.

Legs splayed like a small child, with those distinctive dark eye smudges making her look like a haggard insomniac, Yoaxin appears quite sad and helpless.

Far more lively are several baby pandas, which emit high-pitched squeaks as they tumble on top of each other and scramble up trees.

Local tourists dressed in ridiculous fluffy panda hats snap happily on their smartphones before racing off to souvenir shops to buy tat emblazoned with the symbolic monochrome bear.

Even centuries ago, soldiers would wave flags decorated with pandas, which they believed represented power. There is no doubt these creatures have become a national treasure.

However, given the country’s controversial track record for using endangered species in traditional medicine, Chinese animal welfare almost sounds like an oxymoron.

Jack, the guide said pandas are one of the few endemic animals to have survived, he partially jokes: “because they don’t taste very good!” But there is some truth to his words; history books recount tales of local people attempting to cook pandas in pots with highly dissatisfying results.

“Chinese people like to put things in their mouths, “he adds, as we drive towards the Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base.

Located in the middle of the city and easily accessible, this is the most popular reserve for foreign tourists. Walkways wind around spacious enclosures, in a set-up similar to a zoo.

During the visit, the temperature is mild, but in the sticky summer months, pandas sleep on ice beds in air–conditioned rooms and eat watermelon and carrot lollies to keep cool.

Posters advertise the opportunity to hold a panda, if you are prepared to pay 1330 yuan (215 $) and dress up in an overcoat and surgical mask.

The money is needed for the expensive upkeep of the pandas and investment into the artificial insemination unit, currently the main method by which the sluggish pandas are able to reproduce.

emeishan jinding templegiant budha of leshan

Fortunately, Chengdu has much more to offer than its cute and cuddly bears. Green spaces, excellent cuisine and a strong tradition of tea houses has earned the 2000-year-old Sichuan capital a reputation for being the most relaxed city in the People’s Republic.

ram taoist templemarket

At one time, there were 10,000 tea houses in Chengdu, today, 1000 are still in operation. One of the biggest is the Hemin teahouse in the People’s Park, where groups of old men and university students gather at bamboo tables to play the traditional Chinese game, mah-jong.

Competitors are locked in serious, concentration, their expressions as blank as the flat sky overhead. (On average, the sun only shines in Chengdu 100 days per year.)

antiques shopping areamodern chengdu

Elsewhere, in the park, retired women wearing oversized glasses and pouts like a baboon’s bottom amuse themselves by parading up and down on a makeshift catwalk in a bizarre public fashion show, while others perform traditional Tibetan dances. Aside from the 17th century Qing dynasty wide and narrow alleys, now revamped as an upmarket complex of restaurants, boutiques and street food stalls, much of the high-rise architecture in Chengdu is modern.

As people from rural areas seek better health care, education and employment, the population of the city is swelling. Yet many would agree that their hearts still lie in the surrounding scenic countryside.

Used in the 1950s to carry coal from mines, the Jaiyang railroad now takes tourists on day trips through peaceful farmlands, while a separate carriage still carries locals and their livestock to market. A journey on the small steam train provides welcome contrast to the grey smog and concrete of the city; fields of brilliant yellow rapessed flowers radiate colour in a place where the sun rarely seems to shine.

Although China is a country that is rapidly industrialising, with new roads and buildings springing up like weeds and choking the environment, there is the glimmer of hope that people are beginning to appreciate the extent of what they could lose. It is true that, culturally speaking, the Chinese are not a nation of animal lovers, but efforts to protect the giant panda, their national treasure, are educating a new generation.

Courtesy by G.N.

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