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Lure of pandas is always worth bearing in mind

Updated: 2023-05-23 08:34 ( China Daily )
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A giant panda at the Hetaoping wilderness training base in Sichuan province enjoys a bamboo snack. OWEN FISHWICK/CHINA DAILY

Countless column inches have already been filled concerning Yaya — the giant panda that was returned to China from the United States in April. However, the Yaya story dovetails nicely with a recent experience of mine, that is, getting up close and seeing a giant panda in the flesh for the very first time.

But I didn't see just one panda, nor two, I saw a bunch of them. Luckily, through the nature of my work, I was recently given the opportunity to visit several giant panda research, breeding and rewilding bases in Southwest China's Sichuan province.

Now, before anyone mentions anything about being jealous or how lucky I am, also through the nature of my work, I have to cover a lot of ground in areas that may not be so interesting. So, swings and roundabouts.

First, the obvious. Yes, they are cute. The small ones at least. Their cute little black eyes, fluffy ears and wobbly movements are all adorable. As with humans, the larger they get, the less cute they become, but they remain an amazing sight to see nonetheless.

The wild population of giant pandas has been under protection for years and was once threatened by deforestation, farming, the building of infrastructure and other human activities. Today, there are an estimated 2,000 giant pandas living in the wild in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces.

Giant pandas are classified as a conservation-reliant vulnerable species, and so a great deal of effort has been put in to ensure that the wild population is not only sustained but supported through various programs and efforts.

It was this aspect of my experience that amazed in almost equal measure, from the majesty of the pandas, to the dedicated individuals who work around them, be they carers, breeders or groundskeepers. There is something about giant pandas that just makes people smile.

Xingxing's smile lights up a room, and it absolutely shimmers when she's talking about her passion — giant pandas, of course. Her passion also happens to be her job — she cares for the panda cubs at one of the panda breeding bases in Sichuan province — so things for her are pretty bright altogether.

She still smiles and speaks enthusiastically about her job and passion, even though she is asked the same questions day in day out by a fawning domestic and international media that are desperate to learn more about China's national treasure.

Then there's He Shengshan, who works on rewilding pandas born in captivity. Like pandas themselves, He is patient, thoughtful and giving of his time when discussing the work he does.

In order to successfully rewild a panda, its interactions with humans have to be greatly limited. And so, if He needs to enter the enclosure used in preparation for rewilding, he must dress up in a full-body panda outfit that has been sprayed with panda scents including but not limited to panda urine.

Though I did not enter the enclosure, I was afforded the opportunity to experience this as well. I donned a well-worn panda onesie, placed the hood over my head and mask over my face, and was then sprayed with panda urine. For those wondering, the answer is: "No, it doesn't smell as bad as you might think." But like I said before, swings and roundabouts.






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