Pandas are pretty amazing. Like most people, we really, really like them. So we were thrilled to visit the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, which is basically the Panda Mecca of the world.
Located in the Sichuan Province of China, the Research Base houses upwards of 100 giant pandas – the largest number ever to be held in captivity. The base is also home to other rare species like the black-necked crane and a whole sleuth of red pandas.
To visit the pandas, make sure to arrive early when they’re most active. We were fortunate enough to go on a tour with our hostel that arrived before eight in the morning, so we had the place to ourselves. The center itself is really well-maintained, and there’s a lot of English signage and an educational video. And the entry fee is under $10, making this a really affordable attraction.
If you’re rich (or just really into pandas), you can also spend the $300 to hold one. You only get enough time to snap a few photos, though. So if you’re just in it for the souvenirs you might be better off dropping that dough in the panda-themed gift shop instead.
For decades China has led the way in panda conservation. Not only do pandas represent peace in Chinese culture, but they also serve as an important tool of diplomacy with other countries.
The Chinese have had the most success with breeding pandas, which, it turns out, are very stubbornly opposed to having sex with other pandas.
So why is it that pandas have such difficulty breeding? It would seem that male pandas have very little interest in propagating their species. Breeding centers employ extreme measures like panda massage and electronic stimulation to arouse a male so they can artificially inseminate a female. And yes, panda porn is a very real thing.
As for the females, they’re only fertile for two or three days out of the entire year. Gestation lasts for three to six months depending on the mother’s ability to find food, and many cubs are born underdeveloped. Sadly, more than half of cubs in the wild die either from disease or from being crushed by the mother. This seems far-fetched, right? Not really, since babies are born 1/900th the size of an adult panda. In human terms, that’s like being born to a 7,200-pound mother.
Many experts agree that the giant panda is a remnant species – meaning that even if habitat infringement weren’t an issue, they probably still wouldn’t survive without human intervention. On an evolutionary scale pandas have been around for a very long time, and species do go extinct naturally. It’s hard to say what their status might be if humans never interfered.
Here’s a video of them playing. Try not to succumb to cuteness overload, there’s still more to come.
Another fun fact about giant pandas: They actually have the digestive tract of a carnivore. Their penchant for plants in lieu of protein has resulted in several evolutionary adaptations, such as a sedentary lifestyle, a “thumb” for eating bamboo, and their very large size. Unfortunately they only absorb 20-30% of the nutrients in bamboo and have to eat every waking moment just to survive.
In recent years there’s been a lot of debate over whether it’s worthwhile to conserve the giant panda. The effort and cost involved in breeding the species is astronomical, and perhaps some of the resources would be better spent on other endangered animals, or even on projects that improve the human condition. As for us, we lean towards putting those resources elsewhere. But pandas, man. They’re so damn cute. They make us so happy.