Chéngdū – Giant Pandas and the Tibetan quarter

Ed was back at work today and it was panda day for the rest of us. The Panda Breeding Research Centre is one of Chengdu’s biggest attractions and, for some of our group, the most anticipated day of the holiday.  From an initial six rescued Giant Pandas, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, the centre now houses nearly 200 animals. Many have been bred there in captivity, with the long term aim of being able to reintroduce them to the wild. The centre has pioneered artificial techniques to help their pandas reproduce successfully (explained in more detail than you might really want in the on-site museum) and several babies are born there every year.  Successful conservation strategies mean that Giant panda numbers in the wild appear to be increasing slightly, moving from their previous ‘endangered’ IUCN status to the slightly more secure ‘conservation-dependent vulnerable’ status.  If I travel to China again, I’d love to go to one of the upland Sichuan Giant Panda sanctuaries in the Qionglai and Jiajin Mountains – not just for the pandas but because they occupy one of the most botanically-rich areas of the world, with between five and six thousand plant species.

As is becoming the norm for breakfast, I went to collect bauzi from the smiley lady around the corner from our apartment.  I succeeded in getting steamed buns with a vegetable filling and also chose some of the brown and purple ones to try.  The purple ones contain some kind of sweet goo (red bean paste?) which I didn’t particularly like, but the brown ones look like parkin and taste of black treacle, without being too sweet, which was a nice surprise. Rosie and Sam came over to us and we thought we’d made an early start by getting ourselves into two green taxis just around 8.15 am.  However the traffic on Zongfu road was bad and one of the taxis seemed to get caught by every red light so it was 9 am and already hot by the time we arrived there. The place was heaving with tourists – more foreigners than we’ve seen anywhere else in China but also plenty of Chinese.

For all their cuteness, giant pandas are something of an evolutionary anomaly, having diverged early from the rest of the bear family.  They eat a diet almost exclusively of bamboo shoots, stems and leaves but have only evolved some of the adaptations you’d expect of an animal with such a diet; they still have the relatively short digestive tract and single-chambered stomach typical of a carnivore and lack a digestive caecum to host the bacteria needed for cellulose digestion, so they are not very efficient at digesting plant material.  They do have sharp strong jaw muscles, large molar teeth and a modified bone on the front feet which acts pretty much like an opposable thumb in helping them to grip bamboo.

Because pandas have such difficulty in obtaining sufficient nutrition, they need a highly selective foraging strategy; bamboo shoots get eaten first, as these are most nutritious, followed by leaves and finally stalks.  To meet their nutritional needs, an adult panda needs to eat up to 70 kg of bamboo each day so they spend much of the day eating.  Pandas eat 60 different species of bamboo in the wild to get the range of micronutrients they need so those in captivity need to be given supplements; only a reduced range of bamboo species are available in the lowland area around Chengdu.  The need for both a large quantity and a variety of bamboo species is one of the reasons pandas have become endangered in their native range in upland Sichuan.  Giant pandas are the archetypal ‘charismatic megafauna’ so I have some reservations about the amount of money and energy spent conserving them at the expense of other, less appealing species.  However, the fact that they need such a variety of foodstuffs in the wild means that they act as flagship species for their habitat; species whose conservation, almost accidentally, leads to the protection of their wider habitat and the many other less conspicuous species which occupy it.

Chengdu is really too hot for pandas; in their mountain home, the temperature stays below 20 Celsius whereas in Chengdu, this week, we’ve seen temperatures in the mid 30s.  Like humans, panda cubs are less able to regulate their own body temperatures than adults and so the young are kept indoors in airconditioned rooms during the worst of the heat, at this time of year.  That does mean we get a good close look at them however – a pair of cubs jostling for a comfortable position on their chosen branch are very entertaining.

We we’d managed to get to the research centre a little earlier in the day as, by the time we got there, the adult pandas in the outside enclosures were looking very lethargic.  They just seem to drape themselves over any convenient support, on the ground or in a tree; doing anything just looks like too much effort.  When we take the second year animal behaviour students to Donna Nook on the Lincolnshire coast to look at interactions between grey seal mothers and pups, Sean Twiss is always keen to point out that resting is an important form of behaviour and essential for conserving energy when supplies are limited and I guess when the temperature is too high for comfort too.

The other residents of the park are much less well known, though arguably more endangered, with an estimated adult population of only 10 000 in the wild.  Red pandas, Ailurus fulgens, are not closely related to Giant pandas, though they do eat bamboo and have the same sort of false thumb.  Instead, they are part of a superfamily which includes weasels, skunks and raccoons.   Habitat loss, poaching and the harmful genetic effects of being in isolated, small populations have all contributed to the species’ decline.  They too are targets of the centre’s captive breeding programme.

Red panda, Ailurus fulgens

As we had coffee in the Rose Garden café in the research centre grounds we were perhaps more surprised than we should have been to hear the familiar tones of David Attenborough on the television, describing the work of the centre in a documentary about giant pandas! We headed back to Chengdu for lunch, getting the taxis to drop us near Rosie and Sam’s hostel as we’d seen some noodle stalls nearby.  We missed Ed in our attempts to order vegetarian noodles and ensure there were no peanuts on Rosie’s dish but fortunately a helpful customer came to our aid.

Harry, Sophie and Martyn went shopping after lunch, Martyn in search of a good bookshop Ed has told us is in the basement of the Taikooli shopping mall.  Pat and I decided we needed a break from the heat (34 Celsius, 38 real feel this afternoon, according to my phone) so headed back to the apartment with ice lollies. 

When it had cooled down a little we went in search of the Tibetan quarter of Chengdu, near Wuhou Temple, taking the metro to Gaoshengqiao.  The temple proved easier to find than the Tibetan streets, though I knew we were close by the names above some of the shops.

The temple itself was closed up for the day by the time we got there but the grounds turned out to be full of shops selling tourist tat and food stalls selling street food we hadn’t seen before; maize cakes, cold potato noodles and some very odd looking, spherical jellies.  We even found grilled mackerel on sticks, which pleased Pat and Rosie. Less appealing were what I am sure were baby terrapins, minus the shell…. The buildings and shops look old but are, I suspect, just built to look ‘antique’.

Coming out of another entrance to the temple complex we did end up in the streets of ‘Little Tibet’ proper.  Just one block back from the main road the shops are full of Buddhist paraphernalia, monks, and people with very obvious Tibetan features like those we met in Ladakh.  

Harry was taken with a pair of trousers in one shop before realising they were actually a skirt of the kind worn by the monks. 

Apart from the clothing, temple hangings, statues and butter lamps you might expect to find many of the shops, intriguingly, sold a fine range of liquidisers.  Anyone know what these might be for?

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