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Kavitha Dispatch

Pandas on the Edge:
Trying to Survive in Modern China
July 8, 2000

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Fuzzy, adorable, cuddly and cute...who doesn't love Panda bears? They've become an international symbol of all that's adorable and cute in the world. Yet, there's only one country in the whole world that these living, breathing teddy bears call home. Yup, that's right, pandas live right here in China. So, while I'm here, I knew I couldn't miss this opportunity to see my favorite fuzzy friends in their home environment!

I remember how excited I was when my family moved to Maryland, because then we'd be close to the National Zoo, in Washington D.C., where I could go see Ling-Ling the giant panda. But as I grew older, I started getting sad seeing this big creature sitting in a little space alone behind bars. At least here in China, I thought, the pandas must have miles and miles of green bamboo forests to call home.

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Unfortunately, I was in for a rude awakening. The giant pandas, which once lived in a large expanse of forested land that stretched through the center of China, are now limited to 30 small, isolated regions, mostly here in the Sichuan province. Humans have destroyed most of the land they once called home.

The forests have been cut down, the air and the rivers have been polluted, and a lot of the original land has been converted in to farmland. Now these lovable creatures, which have lived in this region for thousands of years, are endangered, and are quickly headed towards extinction. So I gave up on my fantasy of happening upon a sweet little panda resting in a tree somewhere in a forest, and decided to go visit the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base here in Chengdu.

Map
Abeja, our friend Tine, and I rented some weak excuses for bicycles and set out early in the morning to get to the research base, which is 10 km (6 miles) outside of town. The ride was unpleasant and dangerous, but we braved the smog, pollution, and crazy traffic, knowing that some adorable pandas were waiting at the other end. By the time we finally arrived it was already 8:45 in the morning, and we ran through the green bamboo groves to make it to the Giant Panda Activity Area, hoping to catch the pandas eating their breakfast. Pandas are generally pretty lazy animals, so unless you want to watch them sleeping, there are only a few hours in the day you can catch them doing something active.... like eating!

As it turns out we weren't late at all. Three of the pandas that ate in the same area hadn't even been let out yet for feeding. We wandered over to where they were being kept, in small concrete cells.

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"I thought that this place was supposed to be for the pandas! Why do they give us humans hundreds of acres of bamboo groves to walk through and keep the poor pandas in such small cells by themselves?" I said as I sadly watched a little panda waddling around in circles in its pen, waiting to be let out.

Soon enough though, they opened the doors to the three cells, and three of the cutest, fuzziest pandas came scurrying out into the 'Activity Area' and hurried over to the cut bamboo that lay waiting for them, conveniently placed in the front so all the tourists could get a clear view. The cute big bears seemed completely oblivious of our presence and just sat there, calmly chewing away at the bamboo shoots and leaves. Pandas can consume over 20 kg of bamboo in just one day (that's over 40 pounds)!

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The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base was set up by the Chinese government to address the threat of panda extinction; they have the help of such international donors as the United Nations, and the World Wildlife Fund. There are a various reasons that combine to explain why the number of pandas left on earth is decreasing so rapidly. One reason is the fact that their food supply is disappearing, but another huge problem is breeding. Pandas are very picky, and tend to like being alone, so even during mating season, it seems not enough of them are getting together. In the past picky panda bears had the option of roaming through vast expanses of forest to scope out their next mate, but nowadays they are confined to small, isolated areas where the selection is not so big. Also, panda researchers at the center explain that the physiology of pandas itself makes it difficult for female panda bears to become pregnant. That's why they set up this research center, to try to help the pandas reproduce.

Vocabulary

oblivious - lacking knowledge or awareness
physiology - the biological make-up of an animal
insemination - to introduce semen into the genital tract of a female

Through various means of artificial insemination scientists have finally been successful at helping pandas become pregnant during the past few decades. Pandas in zoos all over the world are having babies, and in some cases scientists have even been able to help the momma pandas nurse her babies. Usually pandas give birth to two or three babies at a time, but only one normally survives. Now, with a little bit of help from the researchers, some momma bears have been able to keep two babies alive.

LINKS:
China 2000
Endagered Pandas of China
Discovery's Panda Page

As soon as the all the cut bamboo in front of them was finished, our three adorable friends set out to their favorite past-time, relaxing. One of them climbed up a tree to relax on a high branch, while the others just stretched out on a bamboo bench. The picture-taking frenzy of the visitors started to slow down as one by one some of the humans started to join the pandas yawning and slowly left to make their way back to their hotels and homes.

Ever since a French missionary first brought a panda fur back to Paris with him in 1869, Pandas have been a treasured animal in the west. Even our very own president Teddy Roosevelt used to enjoy hunting pandas. Fortunately the focus has now turned to protection of the cute bears, but unfortunately there are still some people that occasionally try to hunt them. The Chinese government's response to illegal hunting has been to increase the punishment to scare more people out of trying. In 1990 two men who had four panda furs were publicly executed. Hopefully there won't be any more cases like that, as the government now offers peasants in the countryside rewards for helping starving pandas. Sometimes the reward can be over two times their annual salaries! It seems the future could be getting brighter for our beloved pandas.

Abeja, Tine, and I weren't quite ready yet to hop back on our rickety old bikes to rejoin the noise and pollution on the streets of Chengdu, so we just sat and watched the lazy bears, yawning and breathing deeply in their peaceful little green area. The research center plans to start releasing the panda bears back in to the wild after successfully breeding them, but as I watch these tame animals in their enclosed 'activity areas', I wonder if that is really possible. The government is starting to focus attention on conservation of the small areas of panda habitat that remain in China, but will the pandas really be able to enjoy a life in the wild again? Will they survive with adequate food and water and air, unaffected by the intense pollution of China's growing cities?

Kavitha

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...kavitharao@bigfoot.com
 

Jasmine - The World Gone MAD with Over-consumption
Abeja - Bicycling through Asia: the Y2K Experience

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