Travels December 2007

Among the Pandas

Our cub reporter exposes China’s soft underbelly.
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Everyone knows that pandas are cute.

Very few people know firsthand how cute pandas are in quantity. Only 12 pandas exist in the United States, rented from the Chinese government for $1 million per year apiece (and some extra fees) and spread out among four zoos. The world’s other zoos outside China hold only two dozen or so more. When glimpsed by visitors, these pandas are usually on their own, making themselves scarce behind tree stumps or chewing resignedly on bamboo. At best we see a mother panda with her cub.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Slideshow: "Panda Land"

James Fallows leads a photo tour through the Wolong Panda Reserve, where the animals resemble "especially cute kindergarteners."

Also see:
"The Travel Advisory"
How to get to the Wolong Reserve and how to support its panda programs

The one place on Earth where giant pandas can be seen close-up and in large numbers is the Wolong Nature Reserve in southwestern China, in the mountains of Sichuan province that lead up to the Tibetan plateau. This part of China has more than 20 panda reserves and breeding centers; Wolong differs from the others in the scale and success of its breeding program. Some 120 baby pandas have been born at the reserve since it was founded, in 1980—at least 45 of them in the past three years. (About 1,600 pandas exist in the wild.)

When my wife and I visited, in August, Wolong’s panda population was more than 60. The youngest was three days old, hairless and bleating and looking alarmingly (and non-cutely) like a turtle without its shell. Another in the nursery, about a week older, had just started to fill in its distinctive black-and-white fur. Each had been the “rejected” panda from a recently born set of twins. Mother pandas frequently have two offspring and decide within minutes which to rear. In the wild, the rejected twins quickly die. Wolong has nursed many of them to maturity; learning to do so was one of its breakthroughs as a breeding center. In some cases this has involved switching twins back and forth to the mother, so that she devotes some attention to each.

The oldest panda at Wolong, in the “elder-care” section, was truly aged—more than 30 years old—and barely moving. Pandas typically live about 15 years in the wild, and into their 30s in captivity. In addition to living longer, captive pandas are bigger and heavier than wild ones, since they’re given apples, carrots, special bread, and other supplements to the basic fare of low-nutrition bamboo.

The center was brimming with young-to-adolescent pandas, ages 1 to 3, who spent all day in large common pens, where they wrestled, climbed on trees, napped in trees, hung from branches, fell off branches, batted each other in the head, pushed each other off rocks, and generally resembled a playground full of much-cuter-than-normal kindergartners.

After my wife and I had followed the action in one pen for an hour or so, the reserve’s chief veterinarian, Tang Chunxiang, joined us. Tang, who’s in his early 50s and has been at Wolong since soon after its start, is widely credited for pioneering its breeding techniques. “The more I work with the panda,” he said, in English, “the more I love the panda.”

In emphasizing the animals’ adorability, I don’t mean to trivialize the work of the Wolong center. The plain fact is that pandas are so vulnerable in so many ways that they would certainly have become extinct if people did not consider them so appealing, thereby justifying great efforts on their behalf. The biggest challenge, of course, is loss of habitat; others include pandas’ well-publicized breeding difficulties and their reliance in the wild on a food, bamboo, that dies out periodically.

Poachers have eliminated exotic animals in much of China. This is one problem pandas do not face; I was told by two local people that villagers would be rewarded as much as a year’s pay for bringing a sick or wounded panda to the Wolong center. Tang says this is not true; even so, the belief that it is may induce pro-panda behavior. Pandas get sick easily, mainly for digestive-tract reasons. Baby pandas in the nursery must be frequently handled and rolled from side to side, like bread dough; otherwise their intestines can become flattened or distorted. (Mother pandas constantly dandle their infants for the same reason.) Adolescent pandas often suffer from a version of the bloat, when too much bamboo gets stuck in the wrong part of their system. Pandas put away up to 100 pounds of bamboo a day; it doesn’t always work out well. During our two days at Wolong, we twice saw bloated 1-year-old pandas rushed to the emergency room.

So familiar is the concept of the vulnerable panda that it provides the subject for the center’s one overtly agitprop message. This is a heroic life-size bronze statue, funded for some reason by the Annenberg Foundation in America, depicting the rescue of a sick panda. A strong and handsome young man, wearing the typical garb of the Qiang ethnic group, carries the huge, ailing animal in a basket on his back. The panda, though weak, holds on with one front paw across the man’s shoulder. Keeping pace with them on one side is a comely young Tibetan woman holding an IV bottle aloft. On the other side is an even more attractive young man identified as Han Chinese and wearing a doctor’s jacket and Clark Kent–ish scholarly glasses. The population around Wolong is mainly Tibetan; the plaque by the statue reminds us of the partnership and friendship between the Tibetan and Han peoples (plus the Qiang), united by love of the panda.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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