Giant Pandas of Wolong

After nearing extinction, the bears find a safe haven

By: Gary Bowerman

Four giant pandas were resting in a tree about 30 feet in front of me. Two were sound asleep on precarious perches and one was gazing across the mountain landscape. The fourth was crumpled in a heap at the tree’s base. Each one was clearly enjoying a well-fed, post-lunch slumber, and none seemed likely to move in the foreseeable future.

As I clicked my camera furiously, I stopped to take in one of those highly prized “travel moments.” I had driven for almost four hours from the city of Chengdu to the Wolong Giant Panda Protection and Research Center, in Southwest China’s Sichuan province. The bumpy journey followed the stunning Minjiang River Valley and trundled across some extremely precarious dirt roads.

But while watching these magnificent creatures with scruffy white faces and baggy black eyes in their natural backdrop not a city zoo the journey seemed more than worthwhile. Though it can get busy on weekends, today the reserve had only four other visitors. I pretty much had the pandas to myself, though their nonchalant mannerisms clearly told me: “Buddy, you need us more than we need you!”

The giant panda is a symbol of both ancient and modern China. Its natural habitat once extended across this vast nation, but man’s actions have pushed it near to extinction.

It’s almost inconceivable today, but on April 13, 1929, the Roosevelt brothers, Theodore and Kermit, became the first foreigners to shoot a panda. Ever since, the population has declined due to poaching, logging, deforestation and the accumulated destruction of its pristine forested habitats.

The news is not all bad. Conservation efforts have been stepped up in China, and by 2010, a new Wildlife and Protected Areas Program will invest $18 million on 15 flagship species, including the creation of 18 new panda reserves. Wolong was the first and largest of several captive panda breeding and research centers set up in the early 1960s. In 1980, China and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) began working together to upgrade the panda research and conservation program.

The Wolong reserve is built into the mountain side and the pandas have large, sloping grassy areas to roam (no cages), with plenty of trees to climb and, most importantly, a natural supply of bamboo to munch.

The WWF has also built wooden layered decking platforms for the pandas to lie on and sun themselves in the afternoon.

No guide is needed, as the area is easy to walk around, and there is some good English-language explanatory information about breeding programs, the panda’s genealogy and the park management and history.

Some of the younger pandas are trained to accept close human contact, and you can pay extra to have your photo taken cuddling a panda. We didn’t do this, but a Chinese couple did while we were there, and they all seemed very happy though the pandas did seem more interested in their next apple than in tactile humans.

The Chinese are very attached to the panda, a global symbol of their nation, and stories about the bears’ plight regularly appear in newspapers. The marketing appeal is not missed, either: The five official 2008 Beijing Olympic mascots include a panda, called Jingjing.

The closest city to the reserve is Chengdu, a rapidly growing metropolis of 10.4 million people. But during my visit to Wolong, the sharp, clean air and wind whipping through the mountain valley made urban China seem like a different planet.

Moving further into the reserve, I climbed a gentle path and spotted a more active panda tucking into its favorite meal: The leafy bamboo shoots that thrive on the fertile mountainsides. In an upright sitting position, the panda clasped the branch in its paws which have five finger-like claws and a modified wrist bone that acts like a thumb and assiduously stripped the leaves with giant molars about seven times the size of a human’s. It was a highly impressive, but clearly tiring, chow-down. Still chewing the last mouthful, the panda rolled sideways and curled into a fetal position an invisible “Do Not Disturb” sign pinned to its back.

Heading back down the hill, I came across two larger, older pandas lying on a wooden decking set in a slight clearing. Facing up to the slowly weakening afternoon sun, they stretched, yawned and scratched each other’s stomach with their paws. Near a small creek, another older bear snuggled contentedly on the grass beside a tree, his head protruding slightly over the creek’s edge.

As well as breeding and research, Wolong focuses on education about panda habitats, genealogy and diet. The souvenir hall features several pictures of squinting, furless, pink newborn pandas reared at the center. Next door is the wonderfully named Panda Conservation Hospital, a modern facility that cares not just for newborn pandas, but also for the sick and injured, rescued from the mountains.

As I prepared to leave, I heard a loud shout. One of the panda wardens was beckoning the four pandas I had first spotted down from their tree. Two clambered inelegantly down; two others stubbornly refused to budge. At first, it seemed unclear what the inducement was, but the two proactive pandas were now bounding, even less elegantly, across the grass. Then it became obvious: The warden produced a bucket of large apples and threw one to each panda. Though their naturally doleful eyes betrayed little emotion, they clasped the apples like Christmas presents. But, rather than unwrapping the gifts slowly, they devoured them with a cracking bite and held out their paws for another.


The journey from Chengdu (pronounced Chung Doo) to Wolong (Wore Long) takes around four hours each way. It passes through the mountainous Minjiang Valley, cut by the broad, meandering Minjiang River. The scenery is spectacular, not unlike the Yangtze River’s famous Three Gorges, which was recently damned and partially flooded. The Minjiang Valley is to be similarly flooded to allow for a hydroelectric plant. However, new roads are being constructed to improve access to Wolong. Along the way, clients will pass through rural Chinese villages and market towns and gain a real insight into Chinese life beyond the cities.

Hotels in Chengdu will arrange private transport, leaving early in the morning and returning in late afternoon for $120-$160. v Chengdu has frequent daily flight connections with all China’s major cities. Recommended hotels in Chengdu include:

Crowne Plaza Located in downtown
31 Zongfu Street, Chengdu

Kempinksi Located in the southern part of the city, near the U.S. Consulate
#42, Renmin South Road, Section 4, Chengdu

Shangri-La Located near the river and scheduled to open in early 2007
7F, Block B, Chengdu International Commercial Building
1 Tianxianqiao Road South, Chengdu