Among the Pandas

Our cub reporter exposes China’s soft underbelly.

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.

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.