My Adventures With Pandas

Dr. Ruth MacPete reports on her recent trip to a panda sanctuary in China.

I recently returned from a trip to Chengdu, China. For those of you unfamiliar with Chengdu, let me share some facts. Chengdu is the provincial capital and largest city in the Sichuan province of southwestern China. It is home to 7 million people and is the 7th largest city in China. Most famously, it is also home to the giant panda. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding center is located in a northern suburb of Chengdu. It was initially founded as a research center in 1987 but years later began welcoming visitors. The research center sees thousands of visitors from all over the world each year and sits on 262 acres of land. Currently, the center houses approximately 80 giant pandas. Thanks largely to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding center, tourism to Chengdu has increased dramatically as tourists flock to the city to see one of China’s national treasures, the giant panda.

Although now known mostly as a tourist attraction, the most important function of the research center continues to be a successful research and breeding center for the giant panda. In collaboration with several zoos from around the world, the research center is working to improve panda breeding and ensure that this amazing species survives. There are an estimated 2000 Giant Pandas in the wild, and like most endangered species, the biggest threat to their survival is habitat destruction.

When I arrived at the center, my initial impression was that it was much bigger than I expected it to be. The center is home to approximately 80 giant pandas housed in exhibits and habitats spread over 262 acres of land. The grounds are lush green and covered with beautiful bamboo, the panda’s favorite food. Habitats are large and well maintained open-air enclosures with lots of trees, bamboo, and wooden structures for pandas to climb and lounge around on. The first two pandas I encountered were snoozing soundly in their enclosure mere yards away from me. Even though they weren’t doing much, it was still amazing to see these magnificent creatures so close that I could almost reach out and touch them. The next habitat I visited was even more exciting. It was a large enclosure with a jungle gym in the middle and contained about fifteen pandas. These sub-adult or adolescent pandas were just lounging around the enclosure chewing away at their bamboo breakfast. Most were lazily eating bamboo while lying down on their backs, while a few others were sitting. Occasionally, a mischievous juvenile would try to grab his neighbor’s bamboo instead of moving a few feet to get its own bamboo. I probably spent 30 minutes watching them, entranced by their blissful existence of happily eating bamboo without a care in the world.

Besides watching the pandas, it was fascinating to see their effect on people. I saw the faces of kids and adults light up with delight and I heard their laughter when they encountered these gentle giants for the first time. Observing the crowd of visitors wearing panda hats and t-shirts, I could tell that “Panda Fever” was universal, affecting young and old, Chinese and foreign. It was heartwarming to see the positive effect that magnificent creatures can generate in people regardless of age, sex,race, or nationality. 

However, although these experiences were amazing in their own right, the highlight of my visit was being able to meet a panda face-to-face, literally. Having worked with animals of all kinds, I knew what to expect, but actually experiencing it was a completely different matter. It was surreal to sit next to a 120-pound living and breathing teddy bear. Even when I reached over to pet him, he continued to munch on his apple, completely oblivious of my presence. Only when I decided to plant a big kiss on his furry head did he stop eating to look at me. However, before our eyes had a chance to meet, he decided the apple was more interesting than me and he resumed eating it. Even though he was more excited about eating his apple than meeting me, I was incredibly moved by the experience and I left the encounter with a smile stretched from ear-to-ear. The only downside to the encounter was that I smiled so much that my face hurt from the “perma-grin.” I left thinking what an amazing and beautiful animal and I am so pleased with all the efforts to save these magnificent animals. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will cherishforever.

I’d like to share some panda facts with you:


  • Giant pandas live in mountain ranges in the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu.
  • The giant panda is endangered and experts believe that there are about 1600 left in the wild.
  • No one knows how long pandas live in the wild but Chinese scientists have reported a zoo panda as old as 35.
  • Giant pandas do not hibernate.
  • Bamboo comprises 99% of the wild giant panda’s diet.
  • In addition to bamboo, pandas occasionally eat small rodents or musk deer fawns.
  • Pandas consume 20 to 40 pounds of bamboo a day.
  • Pandas forage and eat 10 to 16 hours a day.
  • Female pandas ovulate only once a year.
  • The gestation period for giant pandas ranges from 95 and 160 days.
  • Females give birth to one or two young but sadly only one cub usually survives in the wild.
  • Newborn panda cubs are pink, hairless and the size of a stick of butter, weighing a mere three to five ounces.
  • Giant panda cubs may stay with their mothers for up to 3 years.

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