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Meeting Pandas in Chengdu

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My friend and I hopped on a plane from Zhuhai to Chengdu to check out the awesomeness of Sichuan province, home to China’s giant pandas.  As with most visits to tourist locations, I generally rely on the receptionists at the hostel or hotel for the inside scoop about on the local hot spots.  In this case, the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center, home of the cutest black and white bears you ever did see.  So, I asked the receptionist how to get to the panda base and when was the best time to go.  She said we should get there around feeding time, which was 7am, as the pandas sleep after eating, so we would need to get up super early if we wanted to see the pandas when they were active.  Due to the late hour and my friend’s sickness we decided heavily against that, plus my Lonely Planet guide said they fed at 9:30am, so we just decided to go with that.  The next morning we hopped on a local bus and headed to see some pandas.  You have to change buses once at the bus terminal next to the Chengdu Zoo, but the journey was super easy and the final bus stops directly in front of the panda base.


The panda base is completely outdoors, and with the brisk weather there were hardly any people there that morning.  I hoped this was more because of the cold weather than because we had missed the window where the pandas are most active.  Following signs for the panda enclosures, we walked along paths lined with tulips and greenery until we caught sight of our first black and white bear.  I would venture to say that the Lonely Planet guide was right and feeding is around 9:30, because Mr. panda was merrily flopped on his butt, fluffy pot belly bulging in front of him and fresh bamboo sticking out of his mouth like a good ol’e redneck farmer.  It didn’t take much observation to tell that pandas have quite expressive personalities, quite human-like in fact, and were highly entertaining to watch.  They ate either sitting up with their bellies in between their legs, or flat on their backs, and I could just imagine their human counterpart sitting on the couch or laying in bed with a pile of snacks by their side happily munching away. 


Pandas, as we found out, have pseudo thumbs (kind of like a half sized human thumb) which enables them to grasp objects, such as a pile of bamboo leaves, in one paw while grabbing the next mouthful of food with the other.  While the panda’s diet consists mainly of bamboo, the pandas at the breeding and research center in Chengdu also get fed a calorie and nutrition packed cake of sorts to balance their diet.  Without this extra addition it is hard for a panda to eat enough calories on bamboo alone to survive, as their bodies have failed to keep up with their change in eating habits.  Pandas, after all, are bears, which are traditionally omnivores, like us humans, and thus their bodies are designed to intake a varied diet of both meat and vegetables.  Over time, however, the panda has become a complete herbivore in their chosen diet, yet their digestive tract has failed to evolve.  As a result, while they consume bamboo, their digestive system cannot process the fibrous grass as they have no cecum, other organ, or bacteria in their gut that can break down the bamboo fibers and extract nutrients. 

So to make a long story short, basically, what goes in comes right back out with little to no nutrient absorption.  Really, it’s no wonder these animals are endangered, as evolution has clearly not been in their favor, and without human intervention they would probably already be extinct, due to no fault of any deforestation or other human causes.  We are certainly glad they are still around though, as they are quite cute and funny creatures to be in the presence of.


The panda base houses all ages of pandas, from cubs through adults, as well as a couple of red panda enclosures.  Jess and I were both impressed with the quality of life the pandas have here.  There are only two pandas per enclosure (and the enclosures are huge), which I guess shouldn’t really be called enclosures as they are completely outdoors with plenty of shelter to get out of the weather and a small indoor room they use mostly in the summertime, when the temperature is too hot for their thick furry coats.  Each area is equipped with a panda play ground and tons of trees for them to hang out in.  As the time approached noon, the pandas were slowly migrating upwards, climbing up the trees to take a siesta.  For such big heavy creatures I was impressed with how high up in the trees they could sit without breaking any branches.

A couple hours of walking around taking pictures of pandas and we had seen all there was to see at the panda base.  On our way back to the bus stop we inevitably had to stop and buy a panda souvenir, which ended up being two awesome furry panda hats.  We then, of course, proceeded to wear them with pride, panda ears sticking out the tops of our heads, for the rest of the day.  Panda power!


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