A giant panda cub plays at the Wolong Giant Panda Bear Research Center.
A giant panda cub plays at the Wolong Giant Panda Bear Research Center.
Getty Images

Bear With Us: Another Panda Story

Shut out of the National Zoo? China's Wolong Nature Reserve is home to 150 giant pandas.
Shut out of the National Zoo? China's Wolong Nature Reserve is home to 150 giant pandas. (China Photos - Getty Images)
Sunday, December 11, 2005

WHAT: Wolong Nature Reserve

WHERE: Southwest China, 85 miles northwest of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.

WHY: If you can't get in to see the National Zoo's newest star, you have a much better chance of seeing a giant panda at Wolong -- 150 of them, in fact.

As with many others, my panda fanaticism began July 9, when the National Zoo's baby panda, Tai Shan, was born. Soon I was crouching with my computer in the corner of my apartment, the one place where I could pick up a WiFi signal, to catch a glimpse of the little butter stick on the Panda Cam. I'd check the National Zoo's Web site every night, in hopes of hearing the little guy squeal.

So when I moved to Beijing this fall, I immediately planned a trip to Chengdu, about a three-hour flight, to satisfy my panda pangs. I visited in mid-November, when the fall foliage was brilliant and the mid-50s temperatures were conducive to more active pandas. The reserve is open year-round, but in fall and winter, the pandas in the reserve outnumber the travelers who come to see them.

The reserve, a nonprofit organization that receives funding from international groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, was established in 1963 by the Chinese government to preserve the giant panda and its natural habitat. It encompasses 494,000 acres of forest within the eastern base of the Qionglai Mountains. Lush evergreens and broadleaf trees fill the landscape, and scattered in the brush and treetops are patches of black and white.

Driving to Wolong from Chengdu is a bit treacherous. I missed the local bus and resorted to hiring a driver. The mountain's swift switchbacks, coupled with road construction, kept me gripping my seat. Most drivers drive at full speed, hitting enormous potholes at 50 mph and passing other cars on road bends.

I gasped more than a few times, and kept asking myself, is this worth it? But one look at the gorgeous mountain views and the twitch of a furry black ear and there was no doubt.

Most guidebooks warn that a panda sighting is not guaranteed, but I found that there was no way to avoid seeing the furry ambassadors. They were everywhere. I must have seen at least 25 to 30 of the critters, scratching up against trees and rubbing their tails on the rocks.

Each panda at the reserve is given a plentiful plot of land to call its own. Those older than 18 months, the point of panda independence, are kept on large, slope-side spaces sectioned by stone walls, while the younger ones are kept together on flat, woodsy playground sites similar to those you might see at a zoo. The babies are kept in a nursery, where visitors are not allowed to enter but can sneak a peak through windows.

Paths and staircases run alongside the panda plots, up the mountain and through the trees. After a while I became almost blase as I repeatedly spotted pandas cavorting overhead in the pines.

While there are plenty of placards asking for donations in Chinese and English, there is scant information about individual pandas. Breeding and birthing areas give panda names and birth dates, but no other information is provided. I suspect this will change with time, as more foreign-born pandas are sent back to Wolong. And among them will be our very own Tai Shan. When he reaches the age of 2, according to the agreement with the Chinese government, the National Zoo will have to send him to Wolong.

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