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Meet Chengdu's Adorable Pandas

On the outskirts of Chengdu is a modern facility that is home to 30 of the endangered black-and-white bears, and you’ll be hard pressed not to find a soft spot for them after visiting. Story and photography by CHRISTOPHER KUCWAY.

Published on Dec 7, 2015


HUA LI, A TWO-YEAR-OLD PANDA, bounds across the hillside she calls home. She then climbs up to her modern, concrete house, disappearing from view. A flirt, seconds later she pops her head out as if to determine if her audience is still present. It is, so her encore begins as she clambers up the grassy knoll in the cool Sichuan rain, stopping to lean on her rear paws, arching backwards against a shrub and then rolling her head in some pilates-for-pandas move that I assume is how the cub scratches her back. In an instant, Hua Li is back on all fours, coiling herself into a 35-kilogram, black-andwhite fur ball and rolling down the steep, grassy hill at speed. At the bottom, now below the milling crowd of umbrellas, she comes to an abrupt but gentle stop, springs up like a gymnast and stares straight at us. Her wide-eyed expression says, How was that? As long as we stand there, the energized cub will do this over and over again.

Hua Li Panda
Hua Li climbs a tree.

We're at the Dujiangyan Giant Panda Rescue and Disease Control Center 90 minutes outside of Chengdu and, despite the constant downpour, the young Hua Li darts around her enclosure, adoring the attention and burning off the bamboo she eats each day—not an insignificant feat, given that a grown panda consumes between 12 and 18 kilograms of the grass daily. I'm staying at the Shangri-La Chengdu, which offers access to the modern center, one of three bases for the preservation of pandas in Sichuan province where a bumper crop of 10 cubs has been born through the end of September, 2015. China alone has welcomed three dozen baby pandas to date. Shangri-La, with 35 hotels in China, sponsors a 1.6-hectare bamboo plantation for Hua Li and her fellow pandas, and also supports a kitchen that prepares 2.5-kilogram panda cakes—corn, egg, soya beans, rice and calcium powder—along with apples and carrots. Currently, the center is home to 30 pandas but most of the adults are averse to the wet weather and are up for little more than lolling about indoors. So, Hua Li is getting all the love on this day. While each panda lives alone, apparently they prefer it that way, their area is large and the center is very modern in design. Given the cutting-edge facilities—40 enclosures, a lab and a veterinary hospital—this feels nothing like a zoo; in fact, it is more like a stepping stone. Given the panda's endangered status, this facility has a serious scientific side to it, ultimately to release all of its charges into the wild.

Before visiting the center, I have to admit that I wasn't great fan of these cute bears. My argument was that pandas, while endangered—there are about 1,600 in the wild and 300 in captivity—seem strangely averse to procreating. What I didn't know about was the hurdles they face in this most basic of acts. For starters, females only ovulate two to three days a year, in the spring, and between the ages of four and eight. The general thinking, though evolving as scientists learn more about the mammal, is that pandas like to be alone. That explains the tracts of countryside each one claims at Dujiangyan.

Dujiangyan's panda base is located at the foot of Qingchengshan. Ji-Fang Zhang/Getty Images.

Further afield, the 400-hectare Bifengxia Panda Center is a scientific research facility, while Wolong was used for breeding until the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and 40 giant pandas were relocated to Bifengxia. But for a glimpse of the spotlight-loving Hua Li, you'll have to visit Dujiangyan. She'll be waiting.

The 90-minute journey to Dujiangyan Giant Panda Rescue and Disease Control Center is available from Shangri-La Chengdu, which is one of the center's sponsors. Dujiangyan has a day-long volunteer program where, as well as interacting with the pandas, you'll learn the basics about them in a classroom, help prepare their food and plant bamboo.

Shangri-La Chengdu
At the Shangri-La Chengdu. Courtesy of Shangri-La.



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Hua Li at play.
  • Hua Li at play.
  • At the Shangri-La Chengdu.
  • At the Shangri-La Chengdu. Courtesy of Shangri-La.
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