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Chongqing, Oct. 23
We started our second day in Chongqing with the attraction everyone had been waiting for—giant pandas. These quintessentially Chinese bears are found in three provinces in Western China and are most abundant in Sichuan. In 2005, the Chinese government and the conservation group WWF China did the first census of pandas in the wild since the 1980s, finding about 1,600 individuals in natural habitats. The previous count had been around 1,100, so the news was generally positive. (There are also about 160 pandas in captivity worldwide, about two-thirds of them at the Wolong Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center and Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding and Research Base.)
The Chongqing Zoo is a quiet oasis in the heart of this bustling city. There, we saw about a half-dozen pandas in large enclosures, including one juvenile lollygagging in a tree. In 2006, a Chongqing panda named Ya Ya gave birth to twin cubs at the zoo. Because twins are unusual, one of the babies was taken to Wolong to be raised there, but, sadly, Ya Ya rolled over in her sleep on the other cub, crushing it. Apparently, this is not uncommon with pandas, whose babies weigh just 3 to 5 ounces when born—about 1/900 of the mass of an adult female.
Official Chinese news outlets and Web sites love panda stories, like this one about the “bachelor panda” who was being welcomed home from the San Diego Zoo. I was delighted by the idea that Mei Sheng (whose name means both “born in the USA”—hey, Bruce!—and “happy life”) was the guest of honor at “an enthusiastic and grand welcoming ceremony as part of his homecoming.” Let’s hope they served plenty of fresh bamboo.
Apparently, almost all of the world’s pandas—including the ones in U.S. zoos—are owned by the Chinese government and can be recalled at will. This includes any cubs born of Chinese-owned pandas, once they reach maturity. Surely, there will be subsequent stories about Mei Shang’s sexual exploits. We were told by our somewhat embarrassed guide Rose that pandas have a low sex drive and have to be encouraged to get it on. One strategy has been to show mature male pandas videos of other pandas mating—which the media immediately dubbed “panda porn.” (Watch this CNN story on YouTube, in which a Chinese panda researcher says they also tried Viagra on the panda boys, who “stayed excited way too long.”)
Despite the increase in the number of pandas living in both artificial and wilderness habitats, only about 60 percent of the animals live in officially protected areas, where they are presumed to be safer from development and poachers. Yet, like many other species in China, pandas are threatened by the country’s rapid economic development. It was encouraging to hear that some Chinese are trying to do something about this—to balance development with nature. Another yin-yang moment in Chinese history.
Even in the official press, there is a line of thinking that questions the impact of unbridled development on the land and its inhabitants. The construction of additional hydroelectric power dams in the upper Yangzi basin has come under particular scrutiny after the controversy that surrounded the Three Gorges project—and it’s not just the impact on people that is of concern. A recent article on an official Web site complained that “hydroelectric power plants have altered the way water flows, killing rare aquatic inhabitants, including otters, giant salamanders and the Hucho Bleekeri Kimura [whatever that is]. They also have invaded into China’s southwestern nature reserves, such as the Fengyongzhai Reserve in Sichuan Province where wild giant pandas are living.”
Whether China will heed these calls for ecological restraint as it builds highways, factories, dams, and entire cities in these sensitive areas remains to be seen. The news out of the 17th Communist Party Congress, which took place in Beijing during our time there, was full of pledges by the Party to address air and water pollution, product safety, and income disparity between urban and rural Chinese. But there was not a lot of talk about nature itself as a resource. The Chinese are incredibly materialistic, and the connection between spitit and nature seems to be lost on the people who are making the economic decisions that, in a developing nation, are most crucial.
Yet giant pandas are a national symbol for China, and enormous effort has gone into both protecting the wild species—the bears occur naturally only in China—and promoting captive breeding. During one recent year, as many as 16 cubs were born in “artificial environments,” the euphemism for captivity. There have even been some efforts to reintroduce captive pandas into the natural environment.
Could this commitment to one signature (and totally adorable) species drive other efforts to save wildlife ecosystems? Could pandas be the canary in the Chinese ecological mineshaft? Let’s hope so—and let’s keep the pressure on whenever we get the chance.
OK, enough posturing. Here’s what you’ve been waiting for—my panda pictures. Oooooo! Cute!