We considered it to be a privilege and an achievement to have been so close to such majestic animals.
Our two days voluntary work with the Giant Pandas was planned to be a highlight of our extended trip to China. In reality, the Giant Pandas exceeded all our expectations.
We had travelled by car from Chengdu, Sichuan Province, to Ya’an, Sichuan Province, where we spent two nights. The China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda is located about forty-five minutes out of Ya’an. The location, in Bifengxia Gorge, is absolutely stunning, an amazing setting, in a deep gorge surrounded by high mountains. Bifengxia Gorge appeals to all the senses. The vegetation is lush and the hills are deeply wooded, providing wonderful colors to delight the eye. We arrived early to complete our paper-work as volunteers and the air was incredibly fresh, a bit like being at a ski-resort. The weather in Ya’an includes rain for three hundred days a year and in summer it is very hot and humid. In the sister panda base at Chengdu, the pandas get air-con 24/7 in summer, so they are a bit lethargic and reluctant to go out in the day-time heat. In the Bifengxia base, the temperatures in the mountains are kinder for the pandas, and they do not need air-con 24/7, like in Chengdu. There are currently eighty-six giant pandas at the Bifengxia Panda Base, which was established after the earthquake damage to the famous Walong Research centre in 2008 but in October 2012 some eighteen pandas were able to return home to Walong.
On our first day, we had to complete the usual formalities and waivers, then we were issued with our work cloths, one-piece, beige, heavy-duty cotton, boiler suits, and thick gloves. We were wearing our hiking boots, so did not need to borrow “wellies”. After the formalities, we were introduced to Yang Hong, the keeper to whom we were assigned as volunteers.
We were taken to a nearby set of buildings and shown our duties which included:
- Cleaning and hosing down the panda’s dens, cages where they spent the night
- Preparing and breaking up bamboo to be given to the pandas
- Weighing and cutting the panda cakes, and then feeding them by hand to the pandas, along with apples & carrots
We were wearing t-shirts under our heavy cotton boiler-suits, and despite the crisp mountain air, we were quite warm once we started our chores. In reality, we completed our chores in the morning and then were only required to feed the pandas, so we had quite a lot of time to explore the research centre, and see and photograph the many pandas, of different ages. We fed the pandas at 11 AM, 2 PM and 4 PM but our keeper also fed them at 8 AM before our arrival at 8.30 AM.
The China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda is a huge research centre working on breeding and how to release pandas back into the wild but safely. During our spare time we observed:
- The nursery, with really cute baby pandas, plus state-of-the-art equipment for monitoring the pandas
- Temperature controlled rooms
- Baskets and blankets with newly born pandas
- The kindergarten, where young pandas played
- Excellent cleanliness everywhere
- Fantastic facilities & huge runs for each panda
All the staff were extremely friendly and supportive of us, especially Yang Hong to whom we were accountable. He spoke a little English and we became friends and he tried to explain the habits of our two gentle giant friends, Chin Chin and Shangri.
Chin Chin and Shangri, our special pandas, for whom we cared, will always retain a place in our hearts. The way this male and female pair looked into our eyes at feeding time, with their beautiful black eyes will remain a lasting memory to treasure.
At feeding time, Yang Hong called the Pandas in from their huge play and sun basking area outside, where they would spend most of the day eating bamboo, playing and sleeping. Once inside their cages, Yang Hong commanded the pandas to sit on their backsides, with their four sets of, razor-sharp, claws clasped around the bars of their cages. They were impatient in this position and would start to get anxious as they knew that it was feeding time. Our job was to weigh and cut up the panda cake into good size slices and pass it through the cage to the panda’s mouth which had very sharp teeth and a powerful jaw. Our fingers were probably no more than a half an inch from the pandas mouth, this was fine with large pieces but the smaller the pieces were more difficult – however, these animals were so gentle, that we had little to fear. The first couple of times, we were a bit cautious but soon learned the knack. The important thing was not to focus on the length of the panda’s claws, sharpness of their teeth nor their hugely powerful jaws – just be in harmony with the giant pandas for a few seconds as they gently took their food. They are a male and female. The male panda, ate five hundred grams of panda cake four times a day and the female ate four hundred and fifty grams the same amount of times daily. The cake was made with corn, oats and vegetables. They had either carrot or apple for dessert.
Between the hours of about 11 AM and 2 PM, we were free to look around and see the many Pandas and watch them play, especially the young ones who would have fun on their hanging tyres, sometimes getting stuck in them until finding a solution to the problem.
We had an amazing time here and before leaving on the second day, we received our Volunteer Certificates and Panda badges thanking us for our hard work and love for the Giant Pandas at the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda.
We were able to take hundreds of photos and much video footage of all the pandas but editing is still required. We promise to release photos and video footage in future blogs, so please make sure that you continue to watch this page!
This is a great cause and are proud to have played a very small part in it.