One of the aspects of the trip we have really enjoyed is seeing some of the wildlife of the world, and in fact our love of wildlife was a determining factor in selecting some of the destinations we ‘locked in’ as it were at before we even left the UK.
Examples included the Galapagos Island trip (for a whole host of amazing wildlife), Borneo (for Orangutans) and our current trip round China for what we get to meet today.
Given its place as the symbol of the World Wildlife Fund, the Giant Panda is one of the most iconic animals on the planet. It is an endangered species, partly because of the destruction of the habitat that it needs to survive, and partly because there surely cannot be an animal as ripe for being naturally selected out of existence.
Pandas are stupid.
Both in terms of the behaviour that we witness at the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Foundation (falling off platforms, bumping heads on platforms, nearly getting stuck in gaps too small for them), and in terms of their evolutionary choices they are not the smartest of animals.
Continuing to exist on a low nutrition bamboo diet when they have a carnivore digestive system significantly limits their energy and exertion levels, increasing predation risks and making procreation without the help of scientific assistance extremely difficult. Darwin would not give them much of a chance of lasting for very much longer.
That said as soon as you lay your eyes on them you instantly fall in love with them, and I wonder if perhaps they have evolved ‘cuteness’ as a defence mechanism knowing that humans will help to keep the species alive and well allowing them to be even lazier.
In the wild Panda numbers are now around the 2000 mark, but there are others in sanctuaries and research centres like this one, that are working to ensure that the numbers don’t fall further and look to try to grow the natural population over time.
As a large (though not as big as you’d expect from an animal with ‘giant’ in its name) mammal eating a low energy veggie diet they spend most of their time in a sedentary existence. Eating and sleeping are their main activities, though we arrive early in the morning to see them at their most active so do see some amusing and captivating scenes.
Highlight of the trip was the opportunity to, for a rather excessive sum it has to be said, hold a baby one. Due to the cost only one of us could do this, and as when in Australia in 2012 under similar circumstances Niki was the one that got to hold a Koala, Niki kindly let me have this opportunity.
MengXiao is a 7 month old male Giant Panda weighing around 15kg, and sat holding him on your knee whilst tickling his furry tummy is one of life’s great experiences. With slightly slacker security and a larger rucsack I would have happily taken him home, and the few minutes you get with him are magical and far too short.
There is still time in the day for our guide to take us to another “Giant” Chinese tourist attraction, the huge stone Buddha of Leshan. It took over 90 years to carve the 71 metre tall statue out of the cliff face, complete with his 8 metre ears and toes that are as tall as a human. Access to yet another UNESCO Heritage location is down a rather steep and challenging staircase, but looking back up at the creation is worth it (and all the steps back up the other side).