Have you ever seen the sunrise over Russia while 40,000 feet in the air? Jet lagged and miserable, this is something I got to experience this summer on my way to China to volunteer with giant pandas.
Despite a turbulent first few days, as I adjusted to a culture unlike anything I had experienced in my life, and got used to travelling alone, working with pandas has been the highlight of my young life, and I’d trade my left arm to be heading back out there right now.
There are only an estimated 1800 pandas left in the wild, with around 300 living in captivity around the world. This itself is an improvement – in the 1970s, there were only an estimated 1000 pandas living in the wild: the efforts of WWF and various animal organisations have actually led to a notable increase in pandas.
Sichuan province in China is the home of the panda, hosting around 30% of the world’s pandas, and has four specialised breeding centres.
I was a volunteer at Bifengxia Panda Research Centre in Ya’an, Sichuan Provence. My daily routine was a 2 mile walk to my enclosure, where we housed 3 giant pandas and one cub.
Guo Guo was my favourite; she was the mother of the cub, and always hungry, so the appearance of volunteers and food was enough to make her happy. Clinging to the bars of her enclosure, her big dark eyes glinting through with excitement at seeing us, is an image that will stay with me forever.
We spent the morning cleaning out the enclosures, and breaking bamboo for the pandas to eat. This was back breaking work, especially in 30 degree heat, but it was always worth it for the opportunity to be in such close encounter with such a special animal.
We each were assigned a keeper, in groups of 3 or 4. Very few of the keepers spoke English, so communication was limited. Gestures and nods were pretty important.
I was lucky to have a nice keeper, who let us pet and play with the animals, and also allowed us to hand feed them, fulfilling one of my life long dreams.
The pandas liked to sleep and eat, and not much else.
They sprawled out in the strangest of places, and slept soundly.
Our resident baby cub was the most energetic out the bunch. At the arrival of the keepers and volunteers she would promptly begin rolling around on the floor and climbing the bars of her cage. When it came to feeding she politely acceptedher food, and stuck her paws out the cage while she ate, so we could all keep playing with her.
It’s amazing to see the way in which these animals behave, especially around humans. She’s been surrounded by them from the start of her life, and almost understands the important role they play in her survival. In the wild, many pandas abandon their weakest cubs, preferring to care for one at a time. At the centre, the keepers hand-rear the abandoned panda.
Volunteering was pretty hard going, a lot more than I expected. I was walking roughly 10 miles a day, from general work, and walking to and from our accommodation and the breeding centre.
Sichuan cuisine is famous for spice, something I was incredibly excited to try. Hot pot is its most famous cuisine; flaming hot oils in which you dip and fry veggies and meat. The meat was fairly questionable but the veggies were amazing. Kung Pao chicken was about the only one I’d heard of, and while it still greatly differed from its westernized version was one of my favourites. The Chinese style of eating allowed us to sample many dishes at once.
We were told that the typical arrangement is rice and one dish per person. As there were 10 of us in the group we got 10 dishes each night to try and share, which meant plenty of tasting and experiencing the local cuisine. The food changed each day depending on what came in fresh- one day there was fish after a successful fishing trip. It was nice to see what we were eating and how it was prepared, and we had classes learning various styles of Chinese cooking.
We also learnt some of the Chinese language, and how to write Chinese characters. This turned out to be trickier than anticipated- it’s quite easy to mess up and write an entirely different word. The few that I have learned will be fun party tricks nonetheless.
The language was necessary – no one in Chengdu or Ya’an spoke proper English, so it was up to us to make the effort and know the basics.
China itself is just big. Like seriously seriously big. But then again I’m from Edinburgh so it could have just been me.
Everything was built up, but there was still a lot of poverty quite evident in the cities. We visited an area of the city centre that had been built in its entirety in the past 2 years, it was almost all designer shops, and showed the budding affluence of one of China’s fastest developing cities.
I was recently explaining the gentle nature of pandas to a friend, and they thoughtfully remarked that had we just discovered this vividly coloured, friendly bear in the wild now, it would be hard to believe that it was real; it sounded more like make believe.
What’s scary is that in 100 years from now pandas might be just that – as dead as the dodo, existing firmly in the world of make believe.
Many people argue that pandas have no place in modern society- that they are letting themselves die out and we should allow that to happen, but for me after spending time with them, the dedicated keepers who spend their days looking after them, and the thousands of tourists who flock to the centre every day, it seems simply they are too important to go extinct.
Pandas have a special place in the hearts of people, and especially in that of China.
And despite being one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, it was all worth it to hold a panda’s paw, look her in the eye, and realise that she doesn’t just know that you are trying to help him, but that she is genuinely thankful for it.