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China's Panda Paradise

By Douglas Wissing
Sunday, May 28, 2000; Page E04

What: Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

Where: Near Chengdu, in China's Sichuan Province

Why Go: You'd literally circle the globe to see giant pandas. Plus, you don't want to wait until Washington's National Zoo receives its pair, which may come from this facility.

Cheng-Cheng lumbered out of the stand of bamboo with a huff and a grunt, a rolling hulk in the morning mist. Her youngster, Shi-Shi, waited for his mother on the platform of tree limbs. The soft scent of the flowering wei-wa shrub drifted in the air as a bird called scrib-it, scrib-it from the towering trees.

The giant panda mother clambered up the tree trunks that leaned against the platform. Her year-old cub pounced, happy to have his playmate back.

They rolled and rassled like bandit sumo wrestlers, with Shi-Shi gnawing his mother's black-and-white fur while Cheng-Cheng gently pummeled him. Off to one side, a zoologist with a blond ponytail took notes. Fifteen yards away, a group of visitors stood in the bush on a narrow walkway, watching the wild domestic scene.

More than 23 giant pandas--about a quarter of the total in captivity--and 20-plus red pandas are at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, which provides naturalistic habitats for the pandas and other rare species, such as the black-necked crane. The 92-acre facility has pioneered techniques to improve panda conception and dramatically increase survival rates of newborns, with scientists in the multistory lab at work on panda embryo transfer and a genome resource bank for endangered species.

The massive Giant Panda Museum, dedicated to building awareness of the pandas' habits, habitat and history, perches on a hill above the center's well-tended gardens and grounds. The exhibits help educate visitors and donors to the unique needs of wild pandas.

Luckily, all of this work is bearing fruit as increasing numbers of the universally beloved creatures are born here each year. Visitors can watch as technicians gently tend the tiny pink infants, barely the size of puppies but already wearing their distinctive masks.

Cheng-Cheng tired of the games and draped herself over the railing. Failing to rouse her for more play, Shi-Shi gave his mother a pat and laid across her burly back for a nap, his arm draped over her shoulder. After a bit, he awakened and decided to gambol, at least by panda standards. Eventually he rollicked too close to the edge of the three-foot-high platform and tumbled off.

"They're basically indestructible," said zoologist Sarah Bexell as Shi-Shi climbed back up for another nap.

When I visited in September, Shi-Shi had about six months left with his mom before the natural separation period at a year-and-a-half. Pandas are known as "the recluses of the bamboo forest," living solitary lives in south-central China's mountains that merge into the Tibetan plateau. As with many endangered species, man's relentless encroachment has disrupted the pandas' habitat, particularly the stands of arrow bamboo that provide their main sustenance.

In the wild, the panda eats up to 30 pounds of bamboo leaves and tender shoots a day. The diet at the research base is a little different--a panda bread or gruel made of milk, egg, ground bamboo and baby food. Since the pandas have an evolved wrist bone that projects to form a false thumb, they can hold apples like a human. "They eat them just like we do," Bexell said, "except they eat the core."

Only about 1,000 giant pandas are left in the wild, with more than 85 percent of them in the Sichuan mountains. They mate in the spring, chasing one another through the forest and up the trees. However raffish and virile the panda male looks, he is woefully undersized in a critical piece of anatomy, contributing to the low insemination rate in the wild. Artificial insemination is one of the keys to the research base's success.

Shi-Shi woke up and tottered around sleepily as Cheng-Cheng slept on. Bexell made a note and glanced around. "Sometimes," she said, "visitors come and get frustrated because they can't see the animals clearly because of the brush. One American woman got angry and snapped at me, saying, 'In America, we design zoos so people can see the animals.' I looked at her and I said, 'Ma'am, this facility is designed for the animals.' "

Information on the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding can be obtained from the China National Tourist Office (212-760-8218, www.cnto.org). The best time to view pandas is from 8:30 to 10 a.m. The base is six miles from downtown Chengdu on Panda Road. Tour operators at the main hotels can arrange half-day trips to the base for $6 to $10 a person.


© 2000 The Washington Post Company


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