Georgina Renée Johnson
2013 Summer Service Project
Bi Feng Xia Giant Panda Reserve
Ya’an, Sichuan Province, China
Last summer I participated in a service program in Ya’an, Sichuan Province, China where I worked with the giant pandas as a volunteer at the Panda Conservation Center in the Bi Feng Xia National Reserve. As a member of a Rustic Pathways’ group and under the supervision of a “panda master”, I had a unique opportunity to interact with and learn about these gentle giants as I helped in their day-to-day care.
At the Conservation Center we were taught all about the giant panda, known in Chinese as大熊貓 or da xiong mao, literally meaning big bear cat. We learned about their habits, diets and reproduction cycles and issues. At the center, we split into different groups and worked at two conservation sites, White Bear Mountain and Overseas. After receiving our assignment to one of the two park areas, we were split into even smaller groups of 3 to 5 people, and assigned to a panda master, a specific panda house, and in my case, to my own panda!
The panda I cared for was a male about 8 years old named Dali. Once a wild panda, Dali was accidentally caught in a trap, high in the national park meant for another animal, which caused him to lose his left back leg and part of his ear. Found and rescued by the staff at Bi Feng Xia and brought to live at the center, Dali would have had a hard time surviving on his own in the wild given his injury. Working exclusively with one panda throughout my stay, allowed me to form a connection with him. As we worked closely with our animals, the other group members and I came to realize that giant pandas have very different personalities and many interesting quirks. One group member’s panda, Wugong, was antisocial and very messy. He loved to be in his outdoor enclosure and it took a lot of coaxing to get him to come inside to eat. He would take the food offered to him and rush to get back outside. Eating quickly as he ran, Wugong would drop half his food, stop to lick it off the floor, and exit the minute he could get away. My panda Dali, however, was an extremely slow and thoughtful eater. Mealtime for Dali was a time to savor his food and take in his surroundings. He used both his paws, cupping his food in order to minimize the amount that fell to the floor or his lap. He would chew slowly and stare at me as he ate, and there were times when we sat for over half an hour, both of us quietly observing the other. I felt during my time with him that we developed a small bond as he would also turn and look at me when I called his name, although it may have been because he knew I was the source of his food!
At the conservation center, we all helped with the many daily chores involved in the care of the pandas. Every morning we would clean the outdoor and indoor enclosures of our individual pandas and leave them new bushels of freshly cut bamboo. We would then hand feed them panda cake (a loaf of specially made bread enriched with vitamins) and other foods like apples and bamboo shoots four times a day through the bars of their indoor enclosure. In addition to our physical maintenance work, we also observed the pandas and recorded their activities and behaviors during the day for 30 minutes at a time. The pandas spent a good deal of time sleeping, so our written observations were limited! We also participated in readings with our groups about panda conservation and captive breeding programs, and through a documentary film learned in-depth about panda reproduction.
While participating in the program, we learned about and discussed the many reasons for the decline in panda populations and China’s conservation efforts to replenish the population to avoid the extinction of the species. Pandas are suffering habitat loss as large areas of their very limited natural forests undergo clearing for timber and agriculture development, and the stripping necessary to create infrastructure for mining and hydropower development. Because of this continued intrusion and push into their native habitat, pandas have had to move farther up into mountainous areas where it is colder and less hospitable. In these areas, the solitary and shy pandas are more likely to overrun each other’s territories. There are also natural causes contributing to the panda’s decline, particularly low reproduction rates as the giant panda can successfully reproduce only a few days a year. Newborn and young pandas also have low survival rates in the wild, as new mothers do not always know how best to care for their young. In the wild, twins are often common, but a mother will choose to nurture only one of her two cubs. Choosing to raise the cub they deem stronger, the weaker cub will perish. Zoos and conservation centers are having more success saving twin panda cubs in captivity, by rotating the two infants with scheduled visits and feedings with their mother—allowing the mother to bond with and care for both. Panda cubs do not have naturally strong immune systems for some time, and must be looked after constantly.
In China, the Woolong and Bi Feng Xia Panda Research and Breeding Centers began as educational research centers devoted to the study and preservation of the giant panda, a rare and treasured creature whose population in the wild numbers less than 1600. Both centers aid in the effort to help increase China’s existing panda population, and conduct an international exchange program with wildlife conservation centers and zoos throughout the world. Although many countries are now home to numerous giant pandas, they are on loan and all of them belong, and will eventually return, to China. The Bi Feng Xia Panda Research Center works on breeding captive pandas in hope of raising their populations, and spreading awareness of this unique species. So far, they have succeeded in having many of the cubs born at the center survive past the age of two, although given their weak immune systems many still do not survive. While they have succeeded in increasing captive populations, the centers have not yet been able to release a captive panda into the wild. However, China’s creation of green corridors and protected habitat areas is slowly helping to reverse the decline and dire situation of the wild panda population.
During my time in Ya’an at Bi Feng Xia, I learned a lot about the giant panda in addition to Chinese culture and daily life. My experience in China last summer was an incredible opportunity to learn about my own heritage and culture as well as these wonderful and beloved creatures. I look forward to working with them again this summer when I return to Chengdu, visiting with Dali, and finding ways to spread awareness of their issues.