Saving the gentle giants of western China

In remote Sichuan province, a panda reserve offers visitors a glimpse of the elusive animal.

"Wolong is full of secrets," says Wu Hong, craning his neck to check that no one is listening.

I've just arrived in the small village, I'm hungry after a four-hour bus ride, and I am only making small talk with the restaurant owner when I ask him how he likes living in such a remote place. Secrets are the furthest thing from my mind.

As he pauses for villagers to walk by, I wonder about Mr. Wu's secrets. Maybe he's referring to Wolong's name in Chinese: "Sleeping Dragon," an old Chinese expression meaning something shrouded in obscurity. Or perhaps he's referring to the surrounding area's high concentration of endangered animals.

But Mr. Wu isn't talking about either. "State secrets. The government conducts secret DNA testing here," whispers Wu, drawing me closer, "and there's also a secret uranium mine up the road - I can tell you more."

I feign interest, but my stomach is calling. "No thanks. May I have a menu, please?"

Although top-secret DNA testing and covert uranium mines would no doubt make an interesting story, I came to Wolong to see another Chinese rarity that, while far from being a state secret, is just as elusive: China's giant panda.

Located in the high mountains of western Sichuan province, the Wolong Nature Reserve encompasses 770 square miles of remote forest and rugged terrain. The reserve was established by the Chinese government in 1975 in hopes of protecting the largest concentration of pandas in the world.

In the heart of the reserve and just 100 km from the provincial capital of Chengdu is Wolong village, home to the Giant Panda Research Center, where researchers work to improve the reproduction rate of the endangered panda and reintroduce cubs to the wild.

Since it was established in 1983, the center has achieved noteworthy success: Of its 38 pandas (they account for roughly a third of all pandas held in captivity worldwide), eight were born in the past year.

According to zookeeper Wu Li Fang, the abundance of these rare and beautiful animals at Wolong is why visitors come to the remote reserve. "Although seeing pandas at a zoo is more convenient for most tourists, the overall experience is much better, here because they can see pandas in their natural habitat."

Mr. Wu and I are on the walkway surrounding one of Wolong's three natural habitat enclosures, set in the hillside above the center. We are watching Tian Tian (who now lives at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington), a 3-year-old male panda, finish his morning meal of bamboo and bread.

"You came here at a good time," says Wu. "He's always more active after his morning meal."

This morning Tian Tian is active indeed. After eating, the bear climbs a pine tree to rest on a branch 15 feet up. Grasping a branch that is much too weak to support his 250-pound girth, Tian Tian attempts to slide down the branch to the ground.

Halfway down he falls to the ground with a thud, eliciting a collective shriek of panic from onlookers. The air is tense as Tian Tian lies limp on the ground.

A visiting specialist from the San Diego Zoo smiles; she's seen this act before. "Its normal for the younger pandas like Tian Tian to fall from heights like that," she says. "They slip, fall from a high branch, hit the ground, and then get back up like nothing happened."

To everyone's relief, Tian Tian slowly gets up, then lazily does somersaults down the hillside. He lands perched on his head against a tree toward the bottom of the enclosure. "He's a ham," says the specialist, as Tian Tian does a headstand.

Nearby, a South African couple smile as they watch their twin girls giggle at Tian Tian's antics.

"We promised our daughters three years ago that we would take them to China to see the pandas, and we finally made it," says the mother. "This place is magical; this morning in the nursery the girls were able to hold a baby panda. This is something that they'll always remember."

Another onlooker is equally impressed. "It's awesome to see the pandas in enclosures that accurately represent their natural habitat," says Robert Sabin, a panda enthusiast from New York. "I'm impressed with the village, too. The standard of living here is much higher than I expected, and the restaurant at the inn has good, clean food."

He's referring to the Panda Inn, Wolong's first Western-style hotel, which serves a variety of Sichuan dishes, specializing in local favorites like stir-fried bamboo shoots in garlic sauce, fiddleheads, and a variety of mushroom dishes.

The Panda Inn has hosted Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, during a state visit to the reserve in which he commissioned the building of a new natural-history museum in the village center.

Although Wolong is located in a remote area of one of China's poorest provinces, the revenue from local tourism and matching government funds has made the village an affordable destination for travelers to China's interior.

Despite increasing numbers of tourists, the village and the Tibetan residents have retained a sense of tradition, giving visitors a rare look into the local customs of the eastern Tibetan people.

After leaving the Panda Center, I take an afternoon stroll, walking out of the village and following the road that cuts through the jagged mountains. Centuries-old stone houses dot the riverside, all built in the traditional eastern Tibetan style.

A group of schoolgirls, finished with class for the day in Wolong, catch up to me. I ask them how much farther they have to go.

"One hour," they respond politely.

Like many minority students throughout remote areas of China, Tibetan students in the Wolong area travel long distances for a state education, a "luxury" that most of their parents never had. Due to help from the Panda Breeding Center, the Wolong primary school offers classes in ecology that teach students about pandas and other endangered plant and animal life.

As we walk by a Buddhist temple just off the road, we hear the droning sound of women chanting the Buddhist sutras inside. The girls motion me to follow them. Inside, the women burn incense and kowtow to a bodhisattva statue.

They are dressed in bright blue aprons and white headdresses. I grab my camera, but one of the girls stops me. "You mustn't take pictures," she whispers, being careful not to interrupt the worshippers. "Old people don't like to get their picture taken."

I put my camera away and watch through the windows. I had heard about the time-honored Tibetan belief that a photograph steals one's image.

On the way back to the hotel, I bargain with women selling hand-knitted woolen socks and traditional Tibetan garments. But a movement in the forest behind them catches my eye.

I see a black and white shape in the distance. Turning around, the woman sees the shape, too.

Before we can get a good look at it, a wisp of low clouds move in.

When a break in the clouds offers a clear view, the shape is gone. "Was that a panda?" I ask the woman.

Shrugging her shoulders, she doesn't answer -another secret in the land of the sleeping dragon.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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