Monday, April 13, 2009

It's The Easter Panda, Julie and Z!

All of our normal Easter traditions flew out the fourth floor window of the Jinjiang Inn as we spent the day in search of the Easter Panda. It was an easy find as we're spending Easter Break in Sichuan and, in particular, Chengdu...The home of the Panda Research Base/Giant Panda Breeding Center.

Pandas have one of the most narrow niches of all living things. They are found only in one place in the world in the wild and that's just outside of Chengdu. In their natural habitat, they eat a hearty diet of bamboo, and more bamboo, and...even more bamboo. They have incredible adaptations that make them wonderfully unique, like a jaw that is specially designed for stripping bamboo of it's shoots and a sixth "pseudo-thumb" on each foot for gripping...you guessed it...bamboo.

While the north end of Chengdu city proper is not the place where pandas are found in nature, it is close enough to that area to be the site of this famous sanctuary. It is home for over 80 pandas who are being studied and bred. Apparently, there are only around 1,600 pandas left in the world so that's a fairly high percentage all gathered in one location.

And while these beautiful animals are usually elusive and solitary, at the Breeding Center, this couldn't be further from an appropriate description, as panda after panda, from adult to sub-adult to cub frolicked and played in enclosures that would make even the fussiest animal advocates happy. This facility is incredibly modern and beautifully maintained.

Were there Chinese characteristics present?

Well, of course!

The story goes something like this...

So we'd heard that you can actually hold baby pandas at this facility. While this is not something I'd normally be "into," the thought of a fuzzy baby panda in my arms was a bit too difficult for even me to pass up.

After some family debate (normally I'm on the other side with Steve on this one...but in this case I was, and still am, weak!), we headed to the nursery for a peak at the babies. There was a big banner in front of the door reporting, "Authorized Personnel Only." This building was closed. I was really bummed since this chance to view pandas at different developmental stages was one of my main reasons for wanting to come to Chengdu in the first place.

So I asked Steve to ask the "personnel" if they would be opening again that day and if this was the place where people could hold the pandas. "You can come in right now and hold one immediately."

Punch-line? Reason that there are no accompanying pictures of me in a blue hospital gown holding a baby panda?

The second part of his sentence was, "one person, one thousand kuai." That's $150 bucks for you and me. A bit steep, no?

Only in China could I have the opportunity to actually hold an endangered species, but I just couldn't do it. All I could think was, OK, if I hold one, then I'd want the kids to hold one, too. That's a lot of Kung Pao Chicken in this town!

I'd love to say that the real reason I didn't do it was because I shouldn't have. In a way, I wish it was, but in this case, though, it was purely financial. How could I justify an expense like this? (Many Chinese people don't make 1000 kuai in a month!) And the thought of perhaps being lao waied (charged an exorbitant amount because I'm a foreigner) never makes me comfortable anyway.

In the end, the chance to watch so many of these awesome creatures up close was an opportunity to see eighty of China's true treasures in action. The place itself is a testimony to China's dedication to the preservation of pandas, the education of the populace, and the realization of the human desire to be close to them. (And, perhaps, the not-so-benign ability to capitalize on that want...But I guess it is a donation to help the pandas...)

See how conflicted I am!?

~Desi

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