Opinion: My time with pandas in China

Anne Whelan with the panda.
Anne Whelan with the panda.

I love pandas, I had a panda bear as a baby and that’s where I think my love of pandas started.

I saw them in London Zoo and Edinburgh Zoo as a child and last year I finally achieved my dream of spending some time in close contact with pandas in their natural habitat in China.

I head up the housekeeping team at Dunsley Hall so once my team were organised, I could go off for three weeks to enjoy the experience.

We visited Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai then headed to Chengdu which is all forests and where the pandas are.

I am a WWF sponsor of Pandas in China but had to apply to the research base on the volunteer panda carer programme.

Once accepted I went to China Conservation and Research for the Giant Panda at Dusangyan base.

This base is a charitable organisation devoted to the giant panda research and protection covering an area of 760 acres it was built with the help of sponsors from Honk Kong Special Administration Region (SAR) Council.

Together with the Wolong and Ya’an bases these three bases constitute a platform that allows demonstrations of in-situ and ex situ conservation of giant pandas.

The goal is to make full use of the giant pandas in economic development. The strategy ‘One centre, three bases ‘will effectively promote long term development of the giant panda conservation and protection of the eco system.

On the volunteer programme I had to clean up bamboos, pick up droppings, wash the enclosures, observe and understand the panda’s status and living conditions.

Bamboo is heavy and the panda eats 12-38kg daily. Did you know that Panda’s milk that they produce for their offspring is green?

This is mainly because of the bamboo they eat. They eat mostly bamboo but also eat panda cake. Panda cake is made from soy, corn, bamboo and egg mixed together.

I fed one of the pandas panda cake and it was amazing as she just sat there and let me put it into her mouth!

Their diet is almost entirely vegetarian but they will hunt for small rodents.

All pandas have their own keeper. I was told by my keeper through an interpreter that I was too comfortable with the pandas and had to be reminded that they are bears and I should not turn my back to them. They are different to ordinary bears in that on their paws they have an extra digit-like thumb.

All the pandas have their own characteristics. The first panda I met was a real entertainer and had lost a leg.

The oldest panda we met was 33 years old and was called Grandpa. I was lucky enough to cuddle a baby panda who was a year old but had no name.

To go up close to the pandas I had to grown up to be completely covered and had to wear gloves, this is so that when the baby goes back to their mother she doesn’t smell the human contact. The pandas didn’t like their ears or tummies touched.

The one year old just sat happily with me eating a carrot and he let me touch him. They do feel as soft as they look, they do not have any smell and I love them even more now.