I was a bit nervous to see our 28-day China tour included a visit to Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Center. I dislike the idea of zoos, and I have heard many a horror story about Asian zoos in particular. The day we visit the pandas I’m skeptical but cautiously excited to see animals in their natural habitat.
The Panda Research Base is in a misty forest just outside of Chengdu, Sichuan province. The center is dedicated to environmental protection, and the site completely awes me with its animal-focused design. Signs caution visitors not to speak above a whisper, not to use flash photography, and not to smoke anywhere on the premise. I think of the absolute din found at DC’s National Zoo and am impressed that such care has been taken to ensure the pandas have peace.
I am also beyond relieved to see the panda enclosures are not concrete cells, but rather giant expanses of forest in which pandas can hide, climb trees, and forage for food. Streams run through some of the sections, while dens of rocks and plants have been built to give the animals privacy. In several areas, we see no animals at all, as the pandas have acres of land to roam and forest in which to hide.
When we do see pandas, it is because the center’s staff has placed bamboo treats close to the visitor walkway. With no one speaking above a whisper and no glass separating us, we can hear the crunch and tear of bamboo, the little noises the adolescent pandas make to one another. I feel as though I am peeking into their home.
The Panda Research Base is truly a sanctuary, not a zoo. Rather than cater toward visitor amusement, it caters to the animals. I feel so much better when we leave, no longer fearing for these pandas. I can’t help but wonder, though, of the animals loaned out by the center to zoos around the world. They may have a peaceful sanctuary in Chengdu, but what exists for them in other countries? The forests of Chengdu is their natural home. I dislike the idea of trading them like commodities, of the stress of travel and the anxiety of a new location that is not a sanctuary like in Chengdu. My hope is that one day all pandas (all wild animals, really) can live out their lives in their natural habitat, where they truly belong.
Have you seen the pandas at Chengdu? What did you think?