China, November 2013 – Travel Notes
Day three of our travels took us to our ultimate destination, The Bifengxia Panda Center in Ya’an, Sichuan Province, China. In many ways, walking through the gate at BFX was a bit like “coming home” after years of reading and writing about it, seeing photographs, and hearing first hand accounts from others who had made the trip. The reality of the Panda Base, however, was far grander and more awe inspiring than all of the images in our heads.
But First, A Bit of History
Construction of the BFX Panda Center began in October of 2002, when it became obvious that a second center, in addition to the existing center at Wolong, was required to manage the growing captive panda population and ensure their continued health and welfare.
Before construction, the Bifengxia base was maiden forest with no power, no roads, and very little access. Dr. Tang Chunxiang, Assistant Director and Chief Veterinarian, described the base as a “blank paper, waiting for great events to occur.”
Since Wolong was primarily a breeding center, the BFX center was originally constructed to house mostly sub-adults (not yet in the breeding program) and senior pandas (too old for breeding). With foresight, however, a small breeding area was constructed in addition to a hospital. The center opened in 2004.
Before the earthquake of 2008, Bifengxia was still a small Panda Center with only 46 staff members. After the earthquake, everything changed.
Following the devastating quake, fourty Giant Pandas were evacuated to the Bifengxia base from Wolong. Workers began construction of temporary pens, a new breeding center, and a kindergarten for young Giant Pandas. Currently there are 58 total enclosures at Bifengxia and the staff has grown to about 144 members.
The Quick Tour
The drive from Ya’an city to the Bifengxia base is not for the faint of heart. The 30-minute trek from the city takes you along a tightly winding road into the mountainous area known as the Bifengxia Gorge.
As you ascend the mountain, it is obvious why this area was chosen for the Panda Center. At 1,200 meters above sea level, the ecology of Bifengxia gorge is very similar to the pandas’ natural habitat (albeit still quite a bit lower in elevation). The area is covered in lush vegetation that makes up the dense broadleaf forest. Streams and waterfalls are abundant, as are huge stands of bamboo.
Once you are inside the gates of the Panda Center, the landscape changes very little. While infrastructure has obviously been added to accommodate the pandas, their keepers and base staff, the natural environment has been retained to the largest extent possible. Roads and buildings have been kept to a minimum and the panda enclosures have been constructed to make use of the existing terrain and vegetation, keeping the habitat as natural as possible. Rather than feeling like a zoo, where the pandas are on display in smaller enclosures for public enjoyment, the base at Bifengxia feels more like a sanctuary.
In addition to the abundant natural vegetation (which covers an estimated 80% of the grounds), several different species of bamboo have been planted throughout the grounds to help with the pandas’ food supply.
The pandas, themselves, are spread throughout the grounds in different “areas” based upon their age, breeding viability, health, etc. Among the many distinct areas are a panda nursery and kindergarten, a breeding center, a hospital, an area for pandas that have returned from overseas, and a semi-wild training area. We will be “visiting” each of these areas in future blog posts.