See Pandas on Their Home Turf in China’s New National Park

A new national park in Sichuan gives the poster bears for international wildlife conservation a home to call their own.

First appeared as “Adventures in Panda Land” in the October 2018 issue of Air Canada enRoute.

Our guide Tang Bing comes to a sudden stop next to a large rock face in the Min Mountains of Western China. After hours trekking alongside small streams and waterfalls through the lush temperate forests of the Laohegou Nature Reserve, I haven’t seen much beyond one venomous Jerdon’s red spotted pit viper hiding in the grass. But now Tang points at the ground with his kandao, a hooked machete that excels at hacking off wayward tree limbs. Hopefully not another snake, I think. As I move closer, he reveals his discovery: a brick–sized pellet of poorly digested bamboo shoots, otherwise known as panda poop. Wild panda poop.

April 22, 2020
A couple browse a display of panda plushies on Jin Li pedestrian street, China
Guide Tang Bing cutting a tree branch
Take your pick of the panda plushies on Jin Li pedestrian street.
Laohegou Nature Reserve guide Tang Bing cuts to the chase.

Before I can get too excited, Tang qualifies the excrement – it’s not fresh, but rather a six–month–old relic. Still, this is as close as most people will ever get to a wild panda. Thirteen of the country’s 1,864 wild pandas are thought to live inside this 11,000–hectare private reserve near the Sichuan–Gansu provincial border – the highest density on the planet. But few of Laohegou’s field researchers have ever seen one. Even Tang, who lives in the village just outside the reserve’s metal gate, tells me his last encounter was back in the 1980s.

Luxury travel company WildChina recently gained access to Laohegou and launched the first–ever public tours, making me one of the first foreigners to set foot in the park. If I hike out of here without an up–close wild panda moment, it’s just my luck. In all my reporting on bear–human relationships, I’ve often narrowly missed out on seeing some charismatic megafauna: grizzlies, black bears and polar bears. And none of the world’s eight bear species is as beloved – or nonthreatening – as the panda.

Main building of the Laohegou Nature Reserve
A misty morning at the Laohegou Nature Reserve.

To me, pandas represent hope. As the global symbol of wildlife conservation, more money has been spent protecting pandas than any other species. Today, the main threat to their survival is habitat loss, complicated by the fact that wild pandas are fairly unadaptable creatures: they eat nothing but bamboo shoots and they are finicky breeders, too. Now, in a larger effort to position itself as a leader for climate change and conservation, China is pouring funds into panda habitats to bolster breeding and long–term survival in the wild. As a result, the landscape for pandas (and panda tourism) is changing fast, with plans to create the Giant Panda National Park by 2023 at a cost of nearly $2 billion. Laohegou is one existing reserve being folded into this new protected area four times the size of Banff National Park, providing forested corridors away from human development. The corresponding “panda route” – a black and white Silk Road – includes a new highway linking the region’s four captive panda bases, the park and the panda–themed resorts expected to follow. Tourism revenue, in large part from Chinese flocking to see their national animal, far outweighs the cost of protecting the bears. Cue the panda–monium!

A happy woman stands with her pink luggage, wearing a panda ear cap
Two female street vendors selling panda plushies in China
That look when you’ve just seen your first panda.
The bear necessities: Street vendors flaunt their wares outside the Dujiangyan panda sanctuary.

Though they remain vulnerable in the wild – their status recently downgraded from endangered – the urban panda is thriving in Chengdu. Sichuan’s biggest city is home to more than eight million people, and I see pandas everywhere. Black and white faces, delightfully cartoonish with big eyes, are splashed over buses and billboards. I stroll past the shops of Kuanzhai Ancient Street, a series of wide and narrow alleys modelled after the traditional buildings of the Qing Dynasty, where vendors hock everything from panda–themed plush backpacks to panda–tufted headbands – a favourite among teenage girls. Among the sizzling, tongue–numbing peppercorns and everything–on–a–stick delicacies, food stalls peddle dumplings with frosted panda faces, their ursine features slowly melting under the Sichuan sun.

A group of visitors all trying to take a picture of the pandas at the Chengdu research base
Panda paparazzi line up a shot at the Chengdu research base.

The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, founded in 1987 with just six bears and now housing 176, is the country’s original panda park. Today it’s the gateway to panda country. With fruit trees in bloom, balmy temperatures and the nursery stuffed with fuzzy, roly–poly cubs reaching peak cuteness, it’s one of Western China’s main draws. All bears reproduce slowly; pandas are pear–size as newborns and as non–carnivores, they’ll need up to 13.5 kilograms of bamboo shoots a day once they’re 900 times bigger. On the drive to the base from the city’s bustling Hi–Tech Zone, I practise my Mandarin with my WildChina guide Dustin Zhang. For laowai, or foreigners, Sichuanese is one of Mandarin’s more difficult dialects, so an English–speaking navigator is a necessity. I try out my pronunciation of xiongmao, panda bear. Shung–mao. Dustin laughs and shakes his head fervently. My tone is wrong. Sho–ong–mao is panda, he corrects me. Shung–mao means hairy chest. The difference is barely detectable. After a few failed repetitions, I shrug. Chabuduo. Close enough, as the Chinese say.

A group of people eating hotpot at Ba Shu Da Jiang restaurant in Chengdu
A woman trying on a two-in-one panda hat and scarf in China
Dipping into a Sichuan hotpot at Ba Shu Da Jiang restaurant in Chengdu.
It’s easy to lose your head with all these pandas around.

Open–air shuttles – panda–themed with black circles painted around the headlights – ferry visitors through bamboo tunnels to the giant panda enclosures. Bougainvillea trees bloom a bright fuchsia, and bamboo leaves rain down on us, instantly scuttled into dustpans by steadfast sweepers. As the sky clears, I notice that visitors have largely foregone the ubiquitous anti–pollution face masks worn in large cities in China in favour of colourful panda hats. At Sunshine Nursery Room, the panda paparazzi, as I’ve come to call the legions of domestic tourists double–fisting iPhone cameras and SLRs, press against the glass. Nine cubs are tumbling, snuggling and munching on bamboo, oblivious to their enthralled audience. One waddles by and instantly collapses on its furry friend. I join the chorus of “awww” that floats up from the crowd – understood in any language.

Panda Xiao Yaiou eating bamboo shoots in Chengdu, China
Shoots and murmurs: it’s snack time for Xiao Yaiou in Chengdu.

Black and white faces, delightfully cartoonish with big eyes, are splashed over buses and billboards.

After watching panda bears dine in style, it’s time do the same – by sampling the province’s famous hotpot, a bubbling, table–top mixture of spices and oil. At Ba Shu Da Jiang restaurant next to leafy People’s Park where retirees waltz and practise Tai Chi, I dunk pieces of lotus root, braided tofu and hard–boiled quail eggs (a level 10 chopsticks challenge) in a dragon–emblazoned pot. Taking inspiration from the morning’s entertainment, I submerge a few slices of bamboo.

A small army of furry dignitaries has been bred by the Chengdu research base over the past three decades to bolster China’s soft power, figuratively and literally. Many of these 261 pandas have been dispatched to international zoos, rewarding trade partners as tokens of foreign diplomacy (think: Justin Trudeau hugging two cubs in the photo op seen ’round the world). When they enter their twilight years, most return to a panda retirement sanctuary in Dujiangyan, an hour’s drive from Chengdu through swerving traffic where lanes seem to serve merely as suggestions.

A street musician poses in Kuan Zhai Ancient Street
A street musician poses in Kuan Zhai Ancient Street, a historic and cultural area in Chengdu.
A red panda peeking over a shrub at the Chendgu research base
The Chendgu research base is also home to a few red pandas.

Reporting for duty at the Dujiangyan base at 8:30 a.m., I’m handed an oversized blue jumpsuit with the words “Panda Husbandry Learner” embroidered on the chest pocket. Today, I’ll be swapping a few hours of back–breaking manual labour – and $160 – for the chance to hand–feed a giant panda. My first task is to shovel up day–old panda poop from resident panda Fei Fei’s enclosure while the supervisor points out all the spots I’ve missed. The green foothills of Mount Qingcheng, one of the birthplaces of Taoism, loom large behind me, though the mist has yet to burn off the sacred mountain’s peak. Panda poop, you’ll be pleased to know, isn’t very odoriferous, making the job easier than the one to follow.

Life-size figurines in a garden of the character Po from Kung Fu Panda
The Kung Fu Panda character Po was inspired by Dujiangyan resident Gong Zai.

Along with a couple from California, I’m sent to a stone courtyard where we’re instructed to whack three–metre long bamboo poles against the pavement in order to split them into smaller pieces. Pandas, it seems, are very particular about dining presentation. And then, it’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for: feeding time. Fei Fei, a 23–year–old panda born in captivity at Sichuan’s Wolong panda base, scoots her butt up against one side of the cage, sitting like Buddha, as I daintily push slices of carrot, apple and special panda bread through the bars into her open mouth. This is the closest I’ve been to a bear, and I’m smitten: It’s impossible to stop smiling as Fei Fei munches away contentedly. And this isn’t even the paramount panda experience: For an additional $400 to help keep the base operating, I’m told, volunteers can have their own Trudeau moment – a 15–second hug with a real live panda bear.

A panda named Zhi Zhi sitting in a tree in China
Zhi Zhi perches in her favourite tree at the Chengdu research base.

Faced with the choice between cuddling a captive panda and a brief glimpse of a wild one, I think I’d go with the latter. So much of our conception of panda bears stems from the clumsy, affectionate behaviour of those in captivity. The efforts to popularize the panda (by appealing to tourists and rendering them into cutesy cartoons) may be helping them survive, but they’ve been robbed of their wildness.

On my final night at the Laohegou Guesthouse, a cross between a hotel and research station near the entrance of the reserve, a rainstorm hits the mountains. Giant drops patter on the pagoda roof and drench the carefully cultivated gardens. Out on the covered teak balcony, I sip “panda tea” – buckwheat tea fertilized with panda dung that tastes more salty than sweet. WildChina is planning more tours of this still largely private reserve, and workers say they’ve been seeing more and more bears, especially on the trail cameras. Here, in the shadow of the Min Mountains, bears can still be bears. This feels like the real wild China to me.