Considered one of the cutest mammals in the world the Giant Panda is unfortunately also one of the most endangered species in the world. Naturally found in the dense bamboo forests of southwest China, Pandas have become a primary subject of China’s community for research and conservation. China is home to a number of research bases that have made it their goal to study and learn about the adorable creatures. Money and effort goes toward helping the Panda population grow and adapt to their natural environment. Pandas in captivity live a longer life than Pandas in the wild, however China believes that it is necessary to allow the animals to live in their natural habitat. Pandas undergo a lengthy process of learning on how to feed and defend themselves against predators before being released into the wild. This process can be lengthy and take years to complete, however China and it’s Panda keepers are dedicated to it!
Finding food for Pandas is relatively easy, since they love bamboo. They do however eat 25-85 lb (12-38 kg) of bamboo per day. That is due to the low nutritional value of bamboo requiring the Pandas to eat a lot of it to meet their daily energy needs. This is one reason the Dujiangyan Base is largely covered by a bamboo forest. Fresh bamboo is a must in a Panda’s daily diet. About 1% of their diet includes other plants and small rodents. A Panda’s digestive system is that of a carnivore, however they have evolved to be almost 100 % vegetarian.
Fascinated by these creatures we decided to spend a day volunteering at one of the bases in China. Prior to volunteering CCRCGP requested that we have a medical exam performed by our doctor to ensure that we were not bringing any diseases to the base. Currently some of the Panda centers have suspended their Panda Volunteer program however the China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Panda Dujiangyan Base does operate a Panda Keeper program. You can volunteer one day or choose to spend multiple days with the beautiful animals.
The base is located about 56 kilometers (34 miles) northwest of Chengdu, China. You have the option of taking public transportation or a car (with driver). We chose to go by car which took about 1 1/2 hours.
The program started at 8:30am after a short orientation and payment of fees (700 CYN per person). Each volunteer was given overalls and gloves which were to be worn throughout the day. Since the weather at the end of November tends to be chilly, we didn’t mind the extra layer of clothing. After we completed the day, we were grateful for the overalls or else we would have been slightly dirty.
Finally, it was time to go meet the stars of the show…the Giant Pandas. A short ride on the Panda vehicle took us to the enclosures of these beautiful animals.
Our first job was to collect all the panda poop. Yes, that is correct! We were given a small shovel and a dirt pan…let the collection efforts begin!
Following the outside clean-up we stocked the area with fresh bamboo and the Panda was released from the enclosure. To protect the Panda’s teeth the keepers had us break the bamboo stalks to make them easier to eat. Yun Due (the Panda’s name) was so cute we didn’t mind doing that.
While the Panda was munching on the bamboo and basking in the sun it was time for us to clean the interior. Fortunately, Panda poop does not stink! After collecting all droppings we hosed down the enclosures. Pandas like their habitat clean!
One of our favorite activities was feeding the Pandas. We all took turns to feed them with both Panda cakes and carrots. Watching them munch is by far the most adorable thing we have ever seen!
The Panda Keepers are very particular about maintaining the base clean at all times, so we were each handed a broom and instructed to sweep the entire area. That was a workout!
Having completed the morning shift, we were given a short tour of the remaining part facilities. We got to see Red Pandas, which didn’t look anything like the Giant Pandas. They were small and very fast but cute nonetheless.
For an additional donation (1800 CYN per person), the base allowed us to spend a little bit of time with a 1-year old Panda. I got to sit on the bench next to it and give it a hug (not touching it’s mouth, ears or belly). It was important to remember that even though cute and cuddly looking, Pandas are still wild animals. They can hurt you!
The base also provided us with a locally cooked lunch. We were invited to the cafeteria along with all the employees of the base for a meal (chicken, pork, vegetables, rice etc…).
After lunch we had the opportunity to go and explore on our own for about an hour. We got to witness the uncomfortable sleeping habits of the Pandas. They are quite active in the morning (best time to visit a Panda base). Once they eat, they become cute but very lazy creatures.
Following the short break we watched a movie about the Panda program in China. It was wonderful to learn about all the efforts of the Chinese government and the incredible work of the Chinese people to help the Pandas. All is done in the hopes of increasing the Panda population in the world. Need coffee? No problem…it was also served in a Panda cup!
The second half of our work day consisted of similar activities as the morning (cleaning inside and outside the Panda enclosures, removing old bamboo and restocking with new, fresh bamboo, sweep and feed the Pandas again).
We also got to make and try(!) some Panda cakes. They are made from Rice, Egg, Soybean and Corn then steam cooked. Honestly, not bad! The Panda cakes are supposed to be round and flattened (like a hamburger patty), as you can tell however, we were not very good at that. Our cake making skills were dismal…but we had a great time with it.
At the end of this wonderful day we were each given a certificate for volunteering in the Panda Keeper program as well as a bag with information about the Pandas. For giving an additional donation to take a photo with the baby panda, we also received a t-shirt and a thank you certificate.
Our feet hurt and we were tired, but it was worth it. Being so close to these beautiful creatures was wonderful. We would have loved to have more personal time with the Pandas, but the Keepers are very protective of them. Long gone are the days when you were allowed to roll around with the Pandas. Nowadays, they are much more careful and concerned for the safety of not just the humans, but also the Pandas.
This particular base focuses on helping rescued wild Pandas. If you want to see small baby Panda cubs, you need to head to the Chengdu Research base, located just at the outskirts of Chengdu, China. You are not allowed to come close to the cubs, but they are so adorable even from any distance. Visiting these beautiful creatures was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If visiting China, this is a must-see place!