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.