Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Pandas – what’s not to love!

The Panda Research Center is situated just 20 minutes outside of Chengdu. Last Sunday, a friend visiting from the States and several students from my undergraduate class and I went to visit. The sky was overcast, or smoggy, as you prefer, but the variety of greens and flowering plants used in the landscaping at the Research Center gave the whole park an unusual brightness. And, several pandas made the visit just plain fun!

The tour begins with a walk down a path with sign boards introducing the history of the research center, with a few endearing comments about China’s love of the panda. As visitors round a bend, there is a small gift shop and an amphitheatre where a short, but quite well done video on the life cycle of the panda is being shown. The video depicts the pandas as solitary creatures, who each want their own space, big time! They eat only bamboo – and digest only a small part of what they eat. I can only imaging that eating some 40 kilos a day must sometimes seem like an onerous chore.

Settlements of any type seem to cramp their style. The video firmly establishes that the solitary nature of the panda leads to some difficulties in their breeding habits – poor – and justifies the need for a research center, with an emphasis on artificial breeding. At birth, the newborn panda it tiny, weighing an incredible 3.5 to 11 ounces! To my surprise, the babies are pink, have little or no fur, do not yet see – and have none of the characteristic black and white markings of adult pandas.

Within a year and a half, the young pandas are ready to play. And,we found several of them in Panda Kindergarten. One panda in particular seemed to be trying to find a comfortable spot in the y-branches of a tree. I this photo, he had decided for a moment that hanging from the branch was better than trying to cradle his bum in the low y-shaped branches. Or, maybe he was just teasing the crowd and the cameras that were following his antics!

As we walked around the park we stopped to watch two older pandas getting their afternoon exercise in a wrestling match. The goal of the match seemed to be to roll your partner down the hill at the edge of the grassy enclosure. The two did this over and over. We all wished that panda markings were a little more distinct so that we could tell whether or not the same panda did the rolling each time, or whether they took turns at this part of the game.

That reminds me of an oft’ told joke: “What is a panda’s fondest wish? A color photograph!” Ha! Ha! Cute!

The Chinese love their pandas and it is not hard to see why. Their rolly-polly furry bodies make them seem like more of a large kitten rather than a 200-300 pound animal. It seems like so much fun to go and play with them. I have the impression, though, that the friendly overture would not be appreciated.

I have visited the pandas at the Washington, D.C. zoo, but I did not realize until the visit to the Panda Research Center, that the D.C. pandas are (reportedly) the only pandas in the United States. Estimates are that there are now about 700-100 pandas in the world, up from about half that number 30 years ago. It is a visit I could make over and over again. The Panda Research Center is one of the unique rewards of being in Chengdu.

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