As a wildlife lover, I couldn’t seem to get the idea of visiting pandas off my mind. I was in China and for some reason the cookie cutter experience, of visiting the panda research center outside of Chengdu, just wasn’t going to do it for me.
After much anticipation we were picked up at our hostel at 7:30am sharp. The driver made our way through the city and out into the countryside for the next 2two hours before arriving at the Dujiangyan Panda Center. We were escorted into the center where we were introduced to several of the center employees and given our uniforms for the day.
Cleaning while the panda waits patiently
As soon as we were ready, there was no time wasted in showing us to the panda pens. Within Dujiangyan are 50 separate panda pens but we were responsible for assisting with just the ones closest to the main center. Here we were introduced to our manager for the day and got our first glimpse of the pandas.
We have seen so many photos of them but seeing the contrast of the black and white in person is something that is so special. They really are as adorable and cuddly as they appear in media and so curious about having you near their pens. They do not hesitate to make direct eye contact with you as you go about your duties.
Cleaning the interior of the panda pen
Our first task was to clean the interior part of the panda pens. The manager coaxed the panda into the adjoining pen and onto the scale to capture a daily weight measurement while we simultaneously closed the separation gate. We set straight to work cleaning out the old bamboo from the pen.
Once this was cleared, we formed a pile outside the building and started cleaning up the manure and hosing down the interior enclosure. When this was completed we added fresh bamboo to the pen. The result was a spotless, clean pen for the panda to lounge in during the day.
Cleaning the exterior pen
The next task involved cleaning the outside pen area, where we again cleaned up the discarded bamboo and manure. We also used brooms to sweep out the automatic water pools. This task is performed daily to ensure the water is clean and fresh for the pandas.
Cutting back the overgrowth
Some of the pens had overgrown areas and one of our tasks as volunteers was to help them cut this back. Along with other volunteers, we worked on this for 30 minutes and made a nice dent in the overgrowth for the pen. It is a project that they are working on slowly as they have help and it was satisfying to know our day of volunteering was helping them whittle away at this project.
Panda cake preparation
Next on the schedule was a trip to the panda cake preparation building. The pandas in captivity are fed their normal diet along with a nutrient enriched item called the panda cake. When we arrived in the building we were led to an area to dress in surgical type gowns and booties as to not contaminate the food preparation area.
Once ready, we were shown to the room where large amounts of panda cake dough were being poured onto the large aluminum tables. Our task? To hand press, shape and form the panda cakes before placing them on pans to be baked in the ovens.
This was a task as the dough is thick and heavy. It is made from a mixture of soybeans, vegetables, bamboo, eggs and water. Imagine a cornbread type substance with a bland smell and you will know what a panda cake is like in raw form. We were shown the approximate amount of dough to take and then shown how to shape and press it into a cake.
There was much emphasis on making sure it was packed hard and we used our hands to press and pound the dough together before cupping our hands around it and shaping it into cylindrical cakes. Much like you would when working with clay. The pandas are each served four of these cakes per day, so there were four loads of dough to press, shape and bake. This activity took us the better part of an hour during our day.
Hand-feeding the pandas
Following lunch we were given a break before helping to prepare the pandas’ afternoon meals. This was the most exciting part of the day, getting to hand-feed the pandas with fresh bamboo shoots. During feed time the pandas act like little kids, overcome with excitement pacing and then sitting while you prepare to feed them.
They are incredibly delicate when it comes to taking the shoots from your hand and wait patiently for you to reach close enough to feed them. Being able to sit so closely to them and watch then shuck the outside off the bamboo shoots and munch away was a special experience that we will not soon forget.
At the Panda Education Center
After the feeding we did another round of pen cleaning and restocking of bamboo before heading back to the main center for walk through their panda education center. This informational area educates the public on the process of researching, preserving and caring for the Giant Panda in China.
It is amazing the amount of effort the workers put into the conservation of this endangered species with medical care, breeding and reintroduction to the wild programs. Lastly we were given a tour of the rest of the grounds, where we had the opportunity to observe several other pandas in close proximity.
Our day ended with transport back to our accommodation in Chengdu. We’ve been traveling the world for the past six months continuously and this activity was one of the most unique and special things we have done. This volunteer tour gives you a real encounter while allowing you to contribute to a really great program that helps protect and care for these amazing animals.