Seeing giant pandas in the flesh was one of the items on my China “to do” list. As with all other magnificent creatures I try to seek them out in the wild, but pandas are a little more elusive than Orangutans, Proboscis monkeys and Komodo dragons. Finding them in the wild would take a lot more legwork than I am normally used to. Unfortunately, I had to settle with the idea that I would not be able to see these clumsy bears in the wild. There are a lot of places to see giant pandas in China and even in the world, but I think the two places below are probably the best bets to see clean and happy bears.
Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding
Also known as the Chengdu Panda Base, it is the most popular place to gawk at these fat bastards in China. Tourists flock to forgettable Chengdu just to see 50 giant pandas at this research facility. I certainly did. There are also a bunch of red pandas at this facility that walk freely among the humans in one of their enclosures.
Jonathan and I spent 6 hours taking pictures, videos and laughing at the clumsiness of giant pandas at the Chengdu Research Base. Considering that, the 58 RMB admission price is pretty decent value. 2013 proved to be quite sensual for the pandas (and their keeper) as there were 8 newborns at the base. Of course, all those little twitchy sausages are on display in an open air crib. The conditions of the enclosures are quite decent, they may not be very large but the pandas seem much cleaner than in other facilities and zoos. It was at the Chengdu Panda Base that Jonathan and I realized that we have never seen an animal more suited to captivity. These pandas are the laziest and the clumsiest creatures in the world.
I really enjoyed getting up close and personal with red pandas. They are incredibly cute, however a lot of them didn’t look too healthy when they were 30 cm away from me. The crowds of pushy Chinese tourists probably don’t suit their lifestyle. I mean, I would get tired of shoes being shoved in my face all day as well. I really recommend going to the closed off red panda enclosure when panda feedings take place at 8:30-9:00 as there is practically nobody. It is really nice to have stare downs with these creatures with nobody around.
The Chengdu Panda Base is located 18km outside the city and you can reach through a couple of public buses. I was lazy and didn’t feel like spending an hour to figure out which bus to take and opted to take a 40RMB taxi. There are many taxis that want to take you to or from the panda base without the meter running. Their bids start at 100RMB. Avoid!
Bifengxia Panda Reserve
This panda base in Bifengxia is quite different from the Chengdu Panda Base. The enclosures are much bigger for the pandas and because of it’s location it is not so packed with tourists. The pandas are free to climb very high trees in Bifengxia which yields a very good photo opportunity. The pandas here look more like they are in the wild than they do at Chengdu Panda Base. There are a lot of pandas in the facility right now because they were relocated from the Wolong Nature Reserve after the 2008 earthquake. Those pandas will be relocated again in 2014. It is now home to 80 pandas however it doesn’t feel like that. I think that a lot of the pandas are not on public display. There are great opportunities to volunteer where you get to clean up after the pandas and feed them panda cakes while they are enclosed in a cage.
Other than the pandas there is also a very nice two hour hike that you can do to or from the panda reserve. The path is in a deep gorge with rivers, waterfalls and beautiful scenery. Along the path, you can see 1000 year old hanging coffins.
From Chengfu “Cinnamon” Xinnanmen Bus Station take the bus to Ya’an Tourist Bus Station, Luyou Chezhan. From there you can grab a Bifengxia shuttle bus for 5RMB that drops you at the base of the park.
In the Wild
Finding giant pandas in the wild is quite a feat. Recent estimates put the shy and ever roaming wild giant panda population at around 1500. For such clumsy animals they sure are elusive. Finding a panda in the wild is harder than finding a tiger. Teams of researchers, at times 40 people strong, trek for days analyzing dung, bamboo bite marks covering 80 square kilometers each day.
Some tour companies offer 2 week long treks to find pandas in the wild but they offer no guarantees. I don’t go to zoos to seek out animals but prefer to find them in the wild, but the Giant Panda has me beat. I personally won’t strive to find these clumsy bears in the wild and will leave the work to professionals who are studying the animals for a greater purpose. My purpose is just to gawk and squeal at them with excitement. Saying that, if you do find a panda in wild please let me know!