Travels December 2007

Among the Pandas

Our cub reporter exposes China’s soft underbelly.

Wolong’s mission is partly to breed pandas to expand the world’s supply, so far a great success; partly to prepare pandas for release into the wild, so far a heartbreaking failure, about which I’ll say more; and partly to make pandas available for viewing, which directly and indirectly builds support for panda- conservation efforts.

The direct support comes from the Chinese forestry department, as well as fees at the center. Wolong is a hard place to get to, and by the time visitors arrive, most are willing to make an extra investment to get close to the pandas. It costs 1,000 RMB ($133) to enter the pasture with the adolescent pandas and play with them for a few minutes. This can be more exciting than some people anticipate. The young pandas seem as harmless as a bunch of puppies, but they are solid, frisky, and numerous, and we saw them unintentionally knock down slight Japanese women several times. To protect the pandas, visitors are sprayed with an antiseptic solution and wear sterile gloves, bootees, and gowns.

For 400 RMB ($53), visitors can have a picture taken with a panda sitting next to them on a bench. It sounds improbable, but the pandas pose like pros, usually munching on a stick of bamboo, for picture after picture. When the photo shoot is over, they’re back to tussling in the pen. According to 201 Questions About Giant Pandas, a book I got at Wolong, pandas spend 98 percent of their time either sleeping or eating, leaving 2 percent for “wondering and enjoying.”

The indirect support comes from the large fraction of visitors so moved by what they see that they leave donations for the center or “adopt” a panda, underwriting all or part of the average $5,000 yearly cost for each animal’s food and medicine.

For me, the biggest surprise at Wolong was that pandas can be so active and sociable, at least when young. Nearly as startling is their Slinky-like flexibility. The Chinese name for panda is da xiongmao, or “big bear-cat,” and the resemblance to cats is strongest in the pandas’ seemingly boneless ability to contort themselves into any shape. Like cats, they relax in any posture they find convenient at the moment. They climb agilely up trees and then seem to ooze their way down. Like penguins, they are very graceful in one medium—water for penguins, trees for pandas—but awkward on land.

In talking about nearly every aspect of his pandas, Tang was cheerful and upbeat. “What are their personalities like?” he asked. “Just like human beings! Some are friendly. Some are lonely. Some are interested only in food, and once they get it they relax.”

At one point only did his mood darken—when we discussed Xiang Xiang. This was a young male panda that had been carefully prepared for release into the wild, but died early this year, 13 months after his release, apparently after a fight with other male pandas. Tang spoke of Xiang Xiang almost like a child lost in battle. “When Xiang Xiang still had his GPS [tracking collar], all looked very good. No one had invaded his territory. He was strong. But we know that if he meets an adult male wild panda, Xiang Xiang cannot win the fight.”

Wolong is creating a 75-acre enclosure where pandas will live for several years, as a sort of halfway house before release. In the future, only lone females or male-female pairs will be released, to avoid conflict with dominant wild males. (“Males often fight to control four or five females,” Tang said. “We will add the natural resource, the female, not the natural competitor, another male.”) And they may be introduced in areas where wild pandas once existed but no longer do.

“Any scientific study is not smooth,” Tang said stoically. “We learned from Xiang Xiang. We will continue to try our best.”

To see what their efforts have wrought, it’s worth the trip to Wolong.

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent. 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.

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