My whole life I have loved pandas. I mean, who doesn’t? They are big soft cuddly-looking balls of fluff that somehow manage to look directly into your soul with those beautiful brown eyes of theirs. For this reason, when planning our round the world trip one of the ‘must do’ things on my travel bucket list was to volunteer at one of the giant panda bases in the Sichuan province of China, which is where the giant pandas mostly live.
To make this dream a reality Tom and I did a lot of research. Unfortunately, it soon became quite clear to us that a majority of the panda ‘volunteer’ programs were really just group tours that included one day spent at a panda base. However, eventually we came stumbled across Go Eco, a company that (for a fee) connects people with various conservation and humanitarian projects around the world, including one working with Giant Pandas at the Bifengxia Panda Base in China. With Go Eco you can volunteer with the pandas for a minimum of 1 week and a maximum of 4 weeks. Although we could have stayed there forever, we chose the 1 week minimum because of budget restrictions. 😥
We arrived in Chengdu on a Sunday, where we stayed at Mrs Panda Hostel for a couple of nights through the program. It was here that we met our guide Li and the 10 other volunteers in our group, most of whom were English (but all of whom were awesome). We had free time on the Sunday and on Monday we went as a group to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding for our first panda-related excursion! There were so many pandas here and oh boy were they cute. But alas, at 11am Tom was forced to drag me away and put me back on the group bus to Chengdu before I decided to become a panda whisperer and go live with them in the wild.
After getting medical check-ups on the Tuesday morning (a crazy experience in itself!) we then left for the Bifengxia Panda Base in the afternoon. The base was about a 2-hour drive from Chengdu and 16km from the nearest city of Ya’an. Nestled in the wet and misty mountains of Bifengxia Gorge the panda base itself is quite beautiful. The enclosures are also of an excellent quality and the climate and environment there is perfectly suited to the pandas needs. Although I cannot say exactly how many pandas were at the base altogether my best guess would be about 20, including the little baby pandas (the babies!).
On Wednesday it was finally time for us to start volunteering with the pandas and basically for all my dreams to come true. We met first thing in the morning, signed our contracts, put on some very stylish panda keeper uniforms, and were assigned in groups of 2 or 3 to a different panda keeper. All the volunteers do the same work on a daily basis, cleaning the panda pens and enclosures in the morning and then three daily feedings.
On the first two days Tom and I were assigned to look after Bai Yan and Wen Yu. Bai Yan was hilarious; a showboat panda who loved getting attention about as much as he loved his bamboo, and that was a lot! We picked up all of the leftover cut up bamboo that was in his enclosure, piled it up and then put it aside while we swept up the enclosure. When we finished, Bai Yan was let back into his enclosure and we moved on to cleaning his pen. We attempted to do the same for Wen Yu, but she was a very shy (sad) panda who didn’t want to expend any energy by doing tiring things like moving.
After doing the daily morning cleanings we would come back three times a day to feed the pandas, usually at 11.30am, 1.30pm and 3.30pm. Bai Yan would always be there on time, waiting in position for us to feed him, where as Wen Yu would usually take a little cajoling. We fed them a carrot each and some special panda bread that is full of all the nutrients that pandas don’t get from their most plentiful bamboo supplies. Feeding them for the first time was very exciting – you think they would grab the food out of your hands aggressively, but instead they just kind of politely collect it in their mouths. Bai Yan would always demolish his food and then lick all the crumbs off his fur, whereas Wen Yu was far more contained and a painfully slow eater. The whole experience was amazing and I still can’t believe that I was able to get so close to the pandas that I was feeding them three times a day!
On our third and final day at the panda base Tom and I looked after two different pandas, Lulu and Susan. Lulu was a big male panda about 12 years old and Susan was quite a young female at only four years old. Both pandas were very lively, especially Susan who would always try to speak to us.
The work at the panda base wasn’t very hard, but it was extremely rewarding. I feel so grateful to have had this once in a lifetime experience, getting up close and personal with the pandas, learning their different personalities and contributing to their conservation. We were also part of an amazing group of volunteers, all united by a deep love of pandas. We all got on really well and generally just had a great time together, both on and off the panda base. I will miss those crazies all most as much as I will miss my adorable new panda friends!
To anyone thinking of doing something similar then I wholeheartedly recommend the Go Eco volunteer program we did. The Bifengxia Panda Base is one of the biggest and best in the world and the pandas are very well cared for here. And let’s be honest, evolution is not exactly on the side of the pandas so without these bases the pandas probably wouldn’t be around for a whole lot longer… All up we also thought the price (USD$750) was quite reasonable too considering how close you actually get to the pandas, one of the most endangered species in the world. This price covered the volunteer program as well as our accommodation, transport, and 3 delicious meals a day.
For more information about it check out: http://www.goeco.org/area/volunteer-in-asia/china/giant-panda-center.