All pictures taken: Panda breeding centre, Chengdu, China.
Date: November 28, 2010.
Camera: Panasonic TZ3.
One of the highlights of my trip to China late last year was visiting the giant panda breeding centre in Chengdu (officially known as the "Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding" which sounds a bit Chinglish to me).
I had expected the base to be a tourist trap, with more visitors than pandas. But, as with most things in China, my preconceptions were completely wrong. Despite visiting on a weekend, there were very few people there. And there were giant pandas -- everywhere!
The world-renowned base was first opened in 1987 with just six pandas. Today there are more than 90 pandas, all of which have been captive-bred.
The animals live in lush, green surroundings replicating their natural conditions in the wild.
I couldn't help wondering if the ones we saw were simply men in costumes, because they didn't seem quite real. I had to keep pinching myself that I was even there.
And while I was pleased to see they were living in such wonderfully naturalistic conditions, I felt sad that none of these animals will ever be released into the wild. That's because there's simply nowhere to put them -- their natural habitat has been gradually destroyed or fragmented. (And even if they could be released, it's doubtful they'd survive on their own, because they're so accustomed to human "contact".)
The upside is that the researchers at Chengdu are doing great things in ensuring the future of the species. Their work in captive-breeding means there will always be giant pandas for people like you and me to see in sanctuaries and zoos around the world.
And the base, which is a non-profit organisation, is also promoting the intrinsic value of these beautiful creatures by investing in wildlife research, conservation and educational tourism.
(Obviously the work is costly -- it can cost £5,000 a year to feed and house each panda -- so donations and annual adoptions are always welcome. You can find out more via the base's official support page.)
The base is also home to a population of red pandas, funny little agile creatures that are only distantly related to the giant panda. I had great fun watching them chasing each other around their enclosure, but less fun trying to capture them on camera because they were so active!
There's also a museum on site (the world's first panda museum) and a cafe that serves delicious banana pancakes.
My only quibble is the movie about panda breeding that plays on an endless loop in the cafe: seeing the reproductive habits of pandas on the big screen while trying to eat lunch can be a little off-putting!
The Panda Base is at 1375 Panda Road, Northern Suburb, Chengdu, Sichuan, China.