I have to make a confession: I don’t think of panda bears as real bears. What makes a bear to me are the ability to grab fish with their bear teeth and instill fear in people. Pandas are cute, and even worse, they’re vegetarians, making them more teddy than grizzly bear. Sure, my views on bears are antiquated and juvenile, but really, a bear should be scary and pandas just aren’t. When the opportunity for me to come face-to-face with pandas came in Chengdu, China I thought, “Great, what are they going to do, eat a salad and then knit?” I considered not going, but soon realized that even vegetarians deserve a shot to be watched in captivity, so we woke early and headed to Panda Research Base.
The Panda Research Base is the “home” of pandas. It was founded in 1987 to save the Giant Panda which are very near extinction, even after extensive efforts to save them. The causes are simple: humans encroaching on their territory and bad sex lives. Like animals everywhere, human growth has cut, paved and polluted their natural habitat. Combined this with their difficulties breeding, due to, and I am not joking, small penises. Learning that got me much more excited interested in pandas…
What I learned is that pandas are delicate vegetarians. I assume they’re delicate because they’re not getting enough iron…but I’ve tried too many times to extol the glories of red meat to vegetarians to have that conversation again. Actually they are delicate because of the amount of space they need for their preferred diet, bamboo, and the fact they have few young. Habitat decline, poor conservation attempts and hunting caused a precipitous decline towards extinction that hopefully can be reversed.
If the species can be saved, it’s up to the Panda Research Base. Almost all the captive pandas in the world are managed by this facility and leased to zoos. The leasing fee, $1 million per year, goes to fund the Panda Research Base. To promote breeding efforts, all pandas are leased in pairs and if they have an offspring it is to be returned to China when requested. Watching a video of a panda being separated from her home, transported to China and get adjusted was as heartbreaking as if it were a human child. The panda didn’t adjust quickly and refused to eat for days. Thankfully the Panda did adjust to it’s new home and will hopefully have children of its own. It was a great demonstration of how the system of leasing and return works, hopefully increasing the Panda population.
The most important and difficult responsibility of the Panda Research Base is breeding. We learned about the challenging process via a great informational video that highlighted the problems: the women aren’t turned on, the men have small penises, and there is a small annual window of opportunity for mating (2-3 days a year). While they attempt to get the pandas to mate “naturally”, it is often unsuccessful. The “natural” process researchers have come up with is: select a male and female, put them in side-by-side in bare concrete prison cells connected by a door, then open the door. Like a sailor who has been out to sea too long, the male chases the female around and tries to get on top of her. This method has not proven to be as successful as they would like.
Why is it a wonder that they are failing to get pandas to mate naturally? Something tells me that the “natural” process isn’t pandas hooking up with total strangers in hourly prison cell themed hotel rooms. According to Wikipedia, they have tried using Viagra and watching videos of panda sex, yet these were of no help either. Now I’m no scientist, but it seems to me that providing a natural habitat for breeding, allowing pandas to choose their mates, and maybe an open bar would facilitate breeding. Maybe it is my simplistic, non-scientific mind, but this formula seems to work in overpopulated areas the world over.
In the end the fate of panda breeding is based on artificial insemination. This has proven very successful, resulting in many of the pandas in captivity today. Almost 50% of successful pregnancies are twins, but the mother abandons one. It isn’t clear why this happens, but researchers developed a cleaver way to keep both alive. They keep one with the mother and incubate the other, feeding them formula and pumped milk. The clever part? They switch the baby with the mother every few hours and she can’t tell the difference! This way each baby gets time with the mother. This program of artificial insemination and twin switching has proven wildly successful, but a huge risk has been created: almost all pandas in existence today come from four donor lines. There is a massive risk of inbreeding or a single illness wiping out pandas as we know them. Though they are mitigating these risks, one never knows if pandas will make it.
The end goal of the Panda Research Base is to reintroduce the pandas to the wild. A massive preserve has been created and the first pandas will be released soon. It is not known how pandas raised in captivity will do in the wild or if they can find their own food, but the hope is they will not only survive, but be fruitful and multiply.
My day with the pandas changed my mind about them. They are no grizzly bear, but they are special. They act almost human-like, munching on their food, watching the people that come to visit them and look you in the eye with a quizzical grin. I learned more than I expected due to the very informative signs, videos and brochure, but most of all saw that maybe we humans can get our act together and keep animals from going extinct. Hopefully our efforts start sooner than they did with the pandas.
WHEN YOU GO:
- You need to go early, around 9 AM as that is the pandas’ most active time: feeding time. The rest of the day they rest and lounge around.
- The public bus, leaving from downtown Chengdu is a great, cheap, way to get to the research center. Check your guidebook for the specific pickup point. The bus runs roughly hourly, so returning by taxi to central Chengdu it is much faster.
- If you visit in the Fall you might be able to see baby pandas. Apparently there are programs that allow you to hold a baby panda. These were not available when we visited, so I don’t know if this is still available.