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Eric and Sachi Koide – A Wolong Travel Adventure

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My daughter, Sachiye Koide, and I have just returned from our visit to the Wolong Panda Research Center and the Bifengxia Panda Research Center. We were at the Wolong Panda Research Center between July 8 and July 12, during the time that the floods and landslides were hitting the region. The following is a chronicle of our experiences there:

My name is Sachi, and I am sixteen years old. This summer, I travelled to the Wolong Panda Center for a week during the beginning of a huge natural disaster. When I was asked to write this, I thought it would be a story of hiking up the mountain to observe wild pandas. In a way, it still is. This is also a story of surviving massive floods, landslides, and all the problems that come with that.

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Eric’s Story:

My daughter Sachi, age 16, is what one would call a Student Panda Conservationist. During the summer of 2012, she worked as a Student Conservation Intern at the Bifengxia Panda Center. This previous school year, she served as president of her high school’s conservation club which fundraised to adopt the panda Cai Tao through the Panda Adoption Program at Pandas International. This year, Sachi applied to and was accepted by the Panda Wilderness Survival and Release Project at the Wolong Panda Research Center to attend an educational session on their project. The educational session included instruction on the process of training pandas to survive in the wild and to be eased back into their natural environment by living in a series of successively more wild and natural habitats which replicate the panda’s natural environment. Sachi’s work schedule was to include dressing up in a panda costume to enter the semi-wild habitats to observe and monitor the semi-wild pandas’ behavior and assess their progress toward truly wild status upon which they could be released back out into their natural environment, thus replenishing the dwindling wild panda population.

On July 8, we set out from Chengdu to drive up into the mountains to Wolong. On the road we were hit by torrential downpours which persisted as we traveled through Dujiangyan and into the tunnels which lead up into the mountains. Exiting the last of the tunnels on this road, we encountered our first difficulty. A rockslide loosened by the voluminous rain had fallen from the canyon walls blocking the road and traffic was stopped as bulldozers worked to clear the road. Once cleared, traffic proceeded. However, the whole length of the road up the canyon to Wolong was damaged and still in a state of reconstruction. So, the way was muddy, uneven, rocky and pockmarked by potholes. Travel was slow and bumpy the whole way up the canyon. Quite frequently, traffic was halted as the road narrowed to a single lane in areas where there was considerable road damage or where cars and trucks were stranded by mud or damage. We finally arrived at our guest house in Wolong in the evening and made preparations to visit the Wolong Panda center the following day.

In the morning, July 9, we learned that during the night, heavy rains had made the mountainside above the Panda Center unstable, the regular climbing paths had turned into muddy streams flowing down the mountain. So, instead of hiking up to the panda wilderness training grounds, we spent the morning taking a hike in the high mountains of the panda reserve and carrying out an Environment and Habitat Assessment Study in an area known to be inhabited by wild pandas. Besides the heavy rain and rushing thundering rivers, the condition of this area of the panda reserve seemed intact and reasonably normal for this rainy season time of year.

Returning to the Wolong Panda Center, we spent the afternoon observing the pregnant mother pandas in the “panda maternity ward” area of the research center. We observed that all of the pregnant pandas were calm, healthy, and well-cared for under the dedicated and watchful eyes of the panda handlers. We spent some time observing the new mother Cao Cao as she gently cleaned and nursed her new baby (one of her set of twins born just three days before on July 6). The little baby seemed quite healthy with a very strong healthy call for such a tiny little cub. Sachi also received instruction from our guide Xia Yan on how they monitor the health and behavior of the pandas in the release habitats using an array of remote video cameras which all feed back to the video room. We sat in the video room monitoring the various pandas in enclosures and semi-wild habitats and learning from the panda handlers about their procedures of monitoring and reporting on the pandas’ condition.

There was a special moment when Sachi had a reunion with the panda Hua Mei who was in the enclosure adjacent to Cao Cao. Hua Mei was the panda which was assigned to Sachi the previous summer when she worked as a Student Volunteer Intern at the Bifengxia Panda Center. Last year, Sachi had had a very happy time attending to Hua Mei, cleaning her enclosure, hauling bamboo for her, making her panda cakes, feeding her, and tending to her health and comfort. Now, Sachi was overjoyed to learn that her Hua Mei, who had been moved to Wolong during the past year, was reaching full term of her pregnancy and was expected to deliver within the week. Sachi spent a great deal of time observing Hua Mei at her enclosure and on the video monitors in the monitoring room. Hua Mei fed with a healthy appetite but was otherwise rather lethargic and spent most of her time in a prone position, resting and napping. During her personal observation time, Sachi hoped that Hua Mei recognized her and knew that her old friend was there to support her during this difficult time.

That evening, the evening of July 9, it rained very heavily and back at the guest house we heard the distant sounds of muffled cracks and booms throughout the night. We were puzzled about what was making those unusual unsettling sounds. Then, during the middle of the night, the electricity went out and all was dark.

When we awoke in the morning, July 10, the rain had abated somewhat, but we there was no electricity and we continued to hear intermittent rumbles in the distance. As we left the guest house to drive down to the Wolong Panda Center, our van was immediately stopped by a large rockfall which covered the road from the face of the cliff across the road and spilled into the river.

We ran across the rockfall danger zone and headed down the road. Along the way, we encountered 7 more landslides, rockfalls, and mudslides on the road to the Panda Center. The largest of these slide areas covered the road to a depth of 8 to 10 feet of rock and mud and was over 100 feet wide. We ran across and over this slide area after observing that there was no active movement of the slide or the mountainside overhead. The most difficult of these slide areas was one which was almost completely mud and which buried the road up to 5 or 6 feet deep. The edges were only about knee-deep so we waded through that section (again, after observing that the mud had stabilized). As we continued down the road we encountered areas where rocks had fallen directly from the overhanging cliffs. Here, we observed the cliff face for stability and then ran around and through the danger zones, skirting the rockfall areas as best we could.We got out of the van and considered our options. Our overriding and most serious concern was that flood or landslide may have damaged and imperiled the pandas at the panda center. We decided that we must continue on to the panda center in order to assist in any way we could for the welfare of the pandas. Therefore, since the road was impassible by car but the rockfall area appeared stable – there were no rocks actively falling and a rugged bulldozer had done a test drive over it – we decided to hike across the rockfall and down the road to the Panda Center.

When we finally arrived at the Wolong Panda Center and crossed the bridge over the river, we observed that the river level in the canyon had risen considerably and the water was dark with mud and sediment and roiled and thundered as it threatened and clawed at the riverbanks.

Amazingly, when we arrived at the panda enclosure area at the center, there seemed to be an island of calm. We were informed that there was landslide damage up the mountain in the panda wilderness release training areas as well as continuing damage along the riverbanks. However, at the core of the center at the panda maternity ward area, there was a reassuring aura of calm and stability. The video room was dark due to the loss of electricity. However, the panda handlers calmly went about their work tending to the pregnant mother pandas.

Our panda expert guide Xia Yan assisted us as we dressed in panda costumes in order to observe the semi-wild pandas in their habitats at the base of the mountain. (We dress in panda costumes in order to prevent the semi-wild pandas from perceiving interaction with humans which may impede their development as wild animals). We entered the semi-wild panda habitat area and spent the morning observing the pandas in their habitat areas. All of the pandas behaved normally as they went about their normal panda habits of foraging, exploring, feeding, scratching, and resting.

In spite of the flooding and landslides which were occurring throughout the valley, the staff at the panda center went about their duties calmly and efficiently. We were impressed with their professional poise in the midst of a growing disaster. They spoke in hushed tones about ensuring the pandas safety and considering their options as it became clear that the panda center was possibly cut off from outside help.

After completing our observation session with the semi-wild pandas, we returned to the panda maternity ward and spent the remainder of our time observing Hua Mei and the other pregnant panda mothers as well as new mother Cao Cao. As the day before, Hua Mei fed well but spent most of her time in a prone position, resting and awaiting the imminent delivery of her baby. Cao Cao, the devoted panda mother, tended to her baby cub gently and intently.

Upon the completion of our session at the panda center, we prepared ourselves for our hike back and set out up the perilous road. Luckily, the rain had held off throughout the morning with only a slight persistent drizzle. Hence, the route up the road had remained stable although we had to recross the areas of landslide, rockfall, and mudslide. Along the way we encountered the lone bulldozer crew stubbornly working its’ way down the road as it methodically cleared the numerous landslides.

Back at the guest house, we learned that the whole town was out of electricity and that the various services they provided would be limited. In particular, the restaurant chef informed us that kitchen service would be limited and he would resort to do some cooking over an open fire in his wood-fired oven. That evening, we lit candles as we settled in for the night. However, late in the evening, the running water to the town abruptly stopped. The storage cisterns which supplied the town’s water had run dry because their pumps ran on electricity and had been unable to replenish the water supply all day.

Again that night, there were torrential downpours and ominous cracks and rumbles up and down the canyon. Occasionally, one could feel a faint but sudden vibration coming from the ground as fresh landslides ripped and tumbled down from high in the canyon. Also, there were sounds like pops and clunks as huge boulders were tumbled downstream by the rushing thundering river.

When we awoke on the morning of July 11, we were informed that the landslides and rockfall had worsened overnight. The short length of road between the guest house and the panda center was blocked by even larger landslides than the day before. The tone in the guest house and in the village was somber and serious. All services including electricity, water, and cellular and satellite phone were cut off by damage to the infrastructure. Numerous homes in the village had been engulfed by mudflows. At the guest house, toilets would not flush and the chef had run out of fresh water to even make tea or porridge. Kitchen and guest house staff placed buckets under the roof spouts to collect water runoff to use as a last resort source of water. Others jumped in a truck with buckets to attempt to draw clean water by hand from the overdrawn water cisterns above the town. The cases of water that the guest house set out for their guests was quickly rationed out.

Various groups, including panda center staff and a group of Chinese students who were also attending a panda educational session, conferred with one another about the merits of various courses of action. For Sachi and me, the options ranged between trying to continue our panda education program, hunkering down in the relative safety of the guest house, or trying to escape the area by the one road which might be open, although it went to the north – the wrong direction.

We agreed to try to accomplish our first priority which was to be of service to the panda center in any manner possible and to complete as much of the educational program as possible. But given the rapidly deteriorating situation, we concluded that escaping the area was definitely a more safe and prudent choice. We decided to make an attempt to reach the panda center again, but also prepared to make a hasty retreat to safer ground.

We set off down the road to check on the landslide conditions. Just around the corner from the guest house, there was a huge and active landslide in progress. Tons of earth and stone had fallen from the mountainside onto the road, covering it to a depth of at least 20 feet and flowing all the way down the riverbank. As we watched, stones and soil continued to tumble down the slope from far above. Nearby and out of harm’s way, the lone bulldozer crew sat patiently, resigned to waiting for the slide to convincingly stabilize before attempting to clear it away. They indicated that they would be waiting probably for hours or even days before it was safe to send the bulldozer in. Furthermore, they feared the slides would continue as the rain refused to relent.

Faced with the obvious fact that the magnitude of landslide and peril to our own lives had greatly increased, as well as the fact that living conditions at the guest house and in the village were seriously deteriorating, we immediately decided to attempt to escape the area. We quickly loaded up the van with our luggage and belongings as well as several days’ supply of bottled water and unperishable food. We bid farewell to the groups who were choosing to hunker down at the guest house, and turned our van up the road to the north.

As we drove up the road from the guest house, we immediately encountered slide and rockfall areas which threatened, but did not completely cover the roadway. Further out of town however, we were stopped by a small traffic jam of about a dozen cars and motorbikes. A slide had covered the road completely. Luckily, the slide was stable and a bulldozer crew was hard at work digging and scooping the wet rocky obstruction away. In about an hour, the bulldozer finished cutting a clear path through and we were able to set off again. As we headed up the canyon to north, we carefully picked our way around and through more than 20 more slide zones, fortunately none of which completely obstructed the road. As the road rose up the canyon walls towards a high mountain pass, the slides we passed became more scattered and smaller until finally we reached the safe area above the landslide zone.

We felt great relief to have escaped the landslide zone down in the canyon. However, we knew we were traveling northward up the Tibetan Plateau, which was exactly the opposite direction from going back to Chengdu. Our guide, who finally made a cellular connection on the north side of the mountain pass, conferred with all his contacts and discovered that all roads in the region which snaked through the mountains were likewise blocked by landslides, many of which were colossal, far worse than those we witnessed in Wolong. The only reliable route back to Chengdu involved driving far to the west across the Tibetan Plateau and heading south through such towns as Danba and Luding, a drive which would take us 14 hours rather than the usual 3 hours via the direct route.

During the rest of our time in Sichuan, we traveled throughout the region and crossed the mountains up to the Tibetan Plateau twice more through such towns as Baoxing, Wenchuan, Tianquan, and Dujiangyan. In all of these places and in between we witnessed the monstrous and terrible damage caused by the epic flooding and landslides brought by the historic rainfall. Riverbanks were torn away until roads and neighborhoods fell into the torrent. Mountainsides gave way burying all below. Towns were buried in mud or flooded to the rooftops after rockslides dammed the river below them. Bridges, many bridges, had their foundations eroded or were impacted by the current until they gave way and toppled over. Traffic and transit between regions was stopped completely by landslides covering the major thoroughfares. The damage to people’s lives and property amounts to an immeasurable tragedy. The reconstruction and repair of the damage will take years and at incalculable cost.

This experience reinforces my awareness of the fragility of humanity in the face of the greater forces of nature. But it even further reinforces my awareness of the fragility of a rare and unique species such as the giant panda, it’s very existence threatened and it’s environment imperiled by the invasion of remorseless outside forces. It reinforces my conviction that the mission of the Panda Research Centers at Wolong and Bifengxia and similar such institutions represent a goodness and purity of purpose which aspires to the very highest ideals of humanity, the goodness to save those who cannot save themselves.

If we are to save ourselves and save our world, let us start with the pandas.

My warmest regards to all at Pandas International.

Sachi’s Story:

Day 1: Arrive in Chengdu the night before, Get picked up at the hotel in the morning, Drive three hours up to Wolong, Panda Orientation for the rest of the day.

Except, exactly while we were boarding the plane in San Francisco, a Boeing 777 crash landed on the runway, a tragic event that made the news even in China. We could see the disaster from where we sat on the plane stalled at the terminal, even though it was a mile or two away. It was seven hours later when our plane was finally cleared to take off. When we arrived in Shanghai, we had to spend the night there instead of in Chengdu because we had missed the connecting flight by a few hours. The next morning we flew to Chengdu and arrived at noon, where we were picked up. We got out of the city and to the entrance of the only road that connects Chengdu directly to Wolong. Landslides had blocked the road, so we waited an hour for them to clear it out. Then we got back in the car and drove the rocky, bumpy, jolting three-hour road to the hotel we were to stay at for the next few days.

The whole ride, I was bouncing up and down in my seat. I couldn’t use my camera because we were never still long enough. The road was a ribbon that ran right along a huge rushing river, us going in one direction, the water in the other. At points, different streams would run right across the road to connect to the river. Bulldozers sat off on the side, still clearing the remains of a large landslide.

We had to strap in the watermelons, it was so rocky. Even then, two of them didn’t survive.

We didn’t make it to Wolong until six in the evening. We missed all of orientation day, and I just wanted to go to sleep because that meant it was 3 a.m. at home, and I was jetlagged.

Day 2: In the morning hike up the mountain for two hours with the panda keepers, Put on panda suits and observe wild pandas, Come back down at 4 p.m.

Except, it was too rainy to go up that trail. Mud and landslides made it too dangerous. So instead, we drove about ten minutes up the mountain to a building where we met up with the keepers, and we took a nature hike around the surrounding forest. They gave us these papers where we could map out everything we saw: what trees, what flowers, what animals… But no one could translate for us what any of it meant, so we just hiked and watched instead. On the trail we saw where a deer had died, the outline of its fur all that was left. We also saw a family of wild goats on the trail, but no pandas.

We finished at 2:00, and went to the Wolong Panda Center to watch the pregnant pandas. Hua Mei was there. Last year I had gone to Bifengxia with a high school group and had been assigned to help care for Hua Mei. That was really special and unexpected to see her at Wolong. We went to the panda keepers’ office, where they had a wall of panda cams set up, observing the pandas in the different stages of entering the wild.

Everything was so calm at Wolong. One of the pandas did laps around her caged area. One of the pandas had hiccups. One of the pandas had just given birth. Her cage was entirely curtained off because her baby needed to stay in the dark until it opens its eyes. This panda actually had twins, but the other one was staying at Bifengxia down the mountain.

That night at dinner, the news showed flooding in the city a few feet deep. We watched as a worker was rescued from a river rushing straight through the road. All the rain happening here at 12,000 feet was creating a disaster down below.

Day 3: Same thing- In the morning hike up the mountain for two hours with the panda keepers, Put on panda suits and observe wild pandas, Come back down at 4 p.m.

Except, we woke up in the morning to find that the power was out. Luckily it wasn’t raining anymore. At breakfast they told us it was too dangerous again to hike up the mountain, so we would go back to Wolong.

Except, the car only made it two minutes down the road, stopped by a landslide that spilled down into the river. We jumped out of the car and ran across it, just in case more rocks decided to tumble down as well.

The Center was two miles down the road from out hotel, about a half hour walk.

Five landslides swallowed the road on the way. It actually looked like the mountain had vomited into the river and missed.

We sprinted passed the ones where we could still see the road, and quickly hiked up and over the ones that completely covered the road, sometimes about fifty feet across.

Except, there was one that was ten feet high at one side, and oozing mud all over the road, and down it, as long as seven or eight cars. I got over the hump of the rock and muck, and on the other side the mud was literally knee deep. There was no choice, we had to slosh through it, and it felt like quick sand, completely covering my boots and rain pants. Half way through, I fell and covered my left hand and sleeve as well. My dad took a picture.

After that landslide, our guide Henry told us he could not go further and we should turn back. But we were so close to the pandas! There was nothing to do at a hotel without power, and we were already covered in mud… We made him keep going.

Wolong had lost power, too. All the panda cams were down, and workers didn’t want to stay long.

We scrubbed off as much mud as we could from our pants and boots in a cold stream at the base.

Then we got our panda suits- literal costumes with tails and ears and everything, and went to observe the pandas in Phase 1 of reintroduction to the wild. These pandas were still in enclosures, but they did not have any human contact. We watched and fed them, but at noon the panda keepers decided everyone should leave, so they locked up, and we started the journey back up the road.

We made it to the mudslide that had covered my knees, and a bulldozer was there clearing it out. Forty-five minutes later, we could cross and actually feel the road under our feet. This also meant that all the rest of the landslides had been cleared out, too. The car picked us up and we went back to the hotel where I washed my clothes and boots, took a shower, and then took a nap.

At six o clock, we had dinner by candlelight. Today was my mom’s birthday, and yesterday had been my sister’s eighteenth birthday. We played finish the picture and had contests to draw pictures in only one minute. Then we wrote happy birthday on them and made them into the world’s worst birthday cards. Well, it’s the thought that counts, right?

We brought the candle upstairs so we could see at least a few feet in front of us. No power- not a big deal. It just meant I wouldn’t be able to charge my camera for one night, and I had an extra battery anyways.

Except, that night the water went out, too.

Day 4: Last day in Wolong, Same thing- In the morning hike up the mountain for two hours with the panda keepers, Put on panda suits and observe wild pandas, come back down at 4 p.m., Drive the three hours back to Chengdu.

Let’s recap, shall we?

Torrential downpour all over the mountain.

Flooding in the streets and in the town.

No power.

No water.

No flushed toilets

No road to get out of here.

This is crazy.

So after breakfast, we packed our bags and piled into the car, and we drove up. Instead of driving down the rocky, three-hour road, freshly full of landslides after being completely clear just two days ago, we drove higher up the mountain.

Between the hotel and the place we took the nature hike the first day, we counted fourteen landslides.

Fourteen hours we drove, up and down two mountains, across the Tibetan plateau. We passed through a marble quarry and herds of cows; through fog so thick we almost drove off the road; through town after town, rocky road after rocky road. In some places, bridges were taken out, mountain tunnels were collapsed, and huge metal towers that hold up the power lines were bent like hangers. And this was the safe, passable route!

Finally, at 11:30 p.m., we made it back to Chengdu. The hotel had power and water, so I was happy.

Day 5: Bifengxia

A two hour drive to Bifengxia, doubled in driving time because of a landslide that blocked the only road out. The line to get through was two miles long.

But we arrived, and it was the most amazing, magical day of my life.

The Panda Club I started at my high school raised enough money last year to adopt one of the young pandas. We met up with the Panda Club at Bifengxia. As a thanks, they gave me these certificates with very official-looking seals on them, and a stuffed animal that I’m pretty sure is a polar bear dressed up as a panda. Identity issues. Since I came home the day of my brother’s birthday (yeah, I missed half of the birthdays in my family because of this trip), I gave it to him as a gift. They were incredibly happy and friendly, even though I had no idea what they were trying to tell me.

I went to a place where they keep older pandas and fed one who was seventeen years old- older than I am!

I went to the panda kindergarten where three cute, fluffy, little pandas were twenty feet up in trees. How they got up there, I have no idea.

The panda keepers came out and banged some pots together, yelling something at the pandas trying to get one down. I watched one get up and shimmy down the trunk of the tree back to the ground.

Then I suited up and got to play with him!

He wanted to eat his bamboo in peace, but I wanted to snuggle with him. He’s so fluffy I’m going to die!

Last thing before leaving, we peaked through the window at the panda nursery. In the incubator lay the second twin from Wolong, two weeks old and just starting to grow fur! It tried to burrow under the blankets. Every few minutes it would tire itself out, then a few moments later start right back at it again.

The keepers came by and let us watch as they cleaned and fed the little panda. It was only as big as one of their hands, and it was squirming and making little squeaking sounds. The baby panda won’t even have a name until its one hundred days old, I was told.

That was the end of my panda trip, a truly once in a lifetime journey. In the midst of the worst flooding and landslides in fifty years, pandas were giving birth and climbing trees. Despite the power outages and the landslides, I dressed up in a panda suit and got to play with a baby panda. And as for the smashed watermelons and the knee-deep mud– well, that’s just part of the experience.

Save the pandas!