TRAVEL Giant pandas
Giant pandas are extremely popular with the Chinese public and the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding draws some 800,000 tourists a year epicentre of the recent earthquake. Some 11,800 people were injured in the Lushan quake in April. A further 196 were killed and 24 people are still missing. But look on YouTube and you’ll ind a minute-long video of a panda trying to climb a tree (and failing) to escape the quake. At the time of writing, it had received 15,000 hits.
A couple of weeks after the quake struck, Chinese state media put out another short video ilmed at Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in an attempt to reassure everyone that the pandas were ine. Pandas are hugely popular with the Chinese public – some 800,000 tourists visit the base each year.
To avoid the rush, I’m up at 6am and arrive at the base at 8am. I’m alone, watching two young cubs, Cheng Shuang and Cheng Dui, play in the cool of the morning.
They roll, bite each other, tumble slowly oﬀ their bamboo platform and even more slowly work their way back up again. They were born seven months ago and still move about as if their front and back legs haven’t been formally introduced to one another.
Until they start to climb a tree, that is. They do this with astonishing speed and grace, and then sit in the fork of a branch, look down at the world around them, and promptly fall asleep.
You can understand why. It’s a tiring business being a panda. They’re descended from carnivores but have restricted their diet to bamboo, a plant so low in nutrients that they have to eat virtually all day. Some 2,000 varieties of bamboo grow in China, but while pandas can eat 60 of them, they favour just 20, which isn’t a good tactic if you want to avoid extinction.
BREEDING PROBLEMS The centre started in 1987 with just six pandas rescued from the wild and has since bred more than 100. It’s breeding season while I’m here, and behind the scenes, bears are being introduced.
Unlike the shenanigans at Edinburgh Zoo, there’s a much higher rate of natural mating at Chengdu. Around half of the bears manage it without any help, which is good going given that the females come into season for just a couple of days each year. The other half are helped along with arti icial insemination. The cubs are born in late summer.
One bear who’s in line to become a father this year is Bing Dian, a stately, relaxed 13-year-old panda who has a quiet enclosure with a pool at the far end of the research centre. As I arrive, he’s sitting in the pool surveying the scene of jasmine and cherry blossom with an expression that says, ‘Feed me grapes.’
I’m spending a morning volunteering with educationalist Bo Xiang. He has worked with the pandas for three years and tells me that he could quite easily sit all morning watching two of his charges, three-year-old twins Xing Rong and Xing Ya.
The bears are waiting for our arrival. They still live together as they haven’t yet reached sexual maturity and so remain relaxed in each other’s company.
Every enclosure has a cage where the bears can retreat from the sun. They’re not big fans of the heat, starting to wilt at anything over 25°C, so spring is a great
54 | July 2013