Giant Pandas (大熊猫/🐼/dà xióngmāo/big bear cat) are one of China’s national treasures. You can find pandas in zoos outside of China, but you will never have the chance to experience them the same way you can in Chengdu. From what I understand China loans out pandas to other zoos with the agreement that any new babies born will be sent back to China eventually. This means if you are fortunate enough to visit Chengdu’s Panda Breeding Research Base you will have an opportunity to see the largest captive population of baby giant pandas in the world! We learned several interesting facts from the informational video they have at the breeding base such as the fact that there is a 50% chance a mother will give birth to twins, but she only has the resources to care for one. She will then pick the strongest one and leave the other to fend for itself. When you consider the fact that the pandas are bright pink and rat sized when they are born along with the females only being in heat for a short period during the year, it is no wonder they struggle to reproduce.
The breeding base itself gives many pandas a chance to survive who otherwise would not make it. It also allows siblings to grow up together for a few years before separating them to preparation for releasing them back into the wild. Contrary to what Kung Fu Panda 3 would have you believe, giant pandas are actually solidarity creatures as they require a large amount of bamboo to eat. It would not do to have too many in close proximity or they would all starve. This also puts great strain on the reproductive abilities and could contribute to why their populations had been dwindling prior to the establishment of the breeding center.
The breeding center in Chengdu also offers a caretaker for a day programs where you learn about feeding and get to help clean the enclosures. You can also still hold a baby panda for all of 20 seconds and get your picture taken I am told (for a few hundred dollars). Holding pandas used to be cheaper and more common until one of the pandas in another zoo in China got sick. After that almost all locations have discontinued the practice of letting visitors hold the pandas.
To get some of the more critical questions out of the way the base itself has many helpful dual language information signs all around like this one:
And in case you are interested to know the name of the pandas currently in an enclosure you can consult the name card:
We planned our trip well by joining an all Chinese tour group that left our hotel early in the morning in order to get to the base right when it opened around 8. Pandas are most active in the morning and as the above informational sign explained, they need a lot of rest as the bamboo is not the most nutrient dense food one could eat. Arriving early also helped to minimize the sometimes overwhelming crowds one can encounter in China.
We were fortunate to encounter a real live Kung Fu panda wielding a bamboo staff early on in our travels. Fun fact, Mount QingCheng (青城山) just outside of Chengdu was the inspiration for some of the scenes in the Kung Fu Panda movies.
We also came upon a pretty entertaining scene with a mother and two young pandas.
David was also highly entertained to see this panda employ the same scratching technique our dog uses…
As I described above, a true baby panda will be tiny and pink, but for the sake of understanding, I will be referring to the cute and cuddly looking creatures below as babies. This enclosure was by far the most entertaining we had a chance to observe, and as such it drew the largest crowds.
One of the most amusing parts to watch was how the babies followed around their care taker. They clearly like their care takers as they kept trying to escape the enclosure and chase them down. The woman would bring them out and sit them on a platform near the viewing end of the enclosure and they would all turn right back around and try to follow her out!
Below is our friend from the cover photo. He was located right next to the baby panda enclosure and highly intent on eating bamboo the entire time we were there (maybe a half hour?).
The bear below kept pacing around the outer perimeter of his enclosure. I wonder what they must think of all the people staring at them all day.
Perhaps the less well known of the panda family is the red panda (小熊猫/xiao xióngmāo/small bear cat). They are considerably smaller, as the Chinese name would suggest, and quite orange/red. It is a lot easier to understand where “bear cat” came from as David so astutely points out in the video below. There was also a large peacock in this large enclosure about 20 feet high in a tree. That was surely something none of us were expecting!
Moral of this story: if you make it to China and like spicy food and big cuddly looking creatures, you simply must visit Chengdu!