Trip Start Aug 30, 2006
Trip End Feb 03, 2008

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Flag of China  ,
Monday, May 7, 2007

It's lazy.

It's kinda dumb.

It overeats.

And, it's a symbol of China.

When you consider the top three less-than favorable characteristics, you wonder why the Giant Panda is such a national, even world-wide, icon.

When China wants to bestow honors on another region or country, they often pack up and send pandas as animal ambassadors. Two pandas were recently relocated to Hong Kong to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the territory being handed back to Sino-rule after British colonization.

More tellingly, of the five "Friendlies" Beijing has chosen to symbolize next year's all-important Olympic games, only Jing Jing the panda is recognizable as the animal it is meant to be.

Outside of China, the panda represents, most famously, the World Wildlife Fund and stands for any endangered species. But my guess is the WWF made the panda its poster child because "Da xiong mao" is more cuddly than a piece of coral and a little more loveable than a thick-skinned rhino--or most of the other animals on the Red List of Threatened Species.

Watching the pandas, it doesn't seem like a noble reminder of Chinese goodwill. Or an animal to make you want to watch some sports. They sure don't look worried about facing extinction as they roll on their backs and nibble bamboo.

They're just cute.

In Mandarin Chinese, their name is "Da Xiong Mao," or "great bear cat." According to the museum at the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding, a long-ago emperor focused on the "bear" idea and trained a legion of pandas to fight his enemies. Scores of soliders are reported to have dropped their weapons and fled in fright when a simple banner showing a drawing of a panda was unfurled during a battle.

Looking at them though, you're reminded more of cats. You just want to pet them.

The Research Base in Chengdu, which I visited in early May, is set up like a good zoo. There are numerous grassy enclosures where the bears loll around on wooden platforms or in concrete caves watching the clusters of tourists hush eachother and take pictures.

Like me, many people wanted to pet the pandas, so many that apparently they had to make the charge for having your picture taken with a panda prohibitively expensive. For two minutes with an adult panda (more than one year old) people were charged 400 RMB (a little more than $50 US).

For a two minute session with a 9-month-old panda on her lap, an Australian woman in our group at the base paid an amazing 1,000 RMB (about $130 US). To put that in perspective, my two-hour flight from Guangzhou to Chengdu cost 700 RMB, a little higher than normal since it was peak season.

Our guide at the breeding base told us the costs were high to keep too many people from having their pictures taken and causing the pandas undue stress. The other side of it though, is that only "rich" foreigners can afford to have their pictures done with China's national symbol while normal Chinese tourists might not be able to afford it.

Feeling poor, my friend Joanna and I pretended to pet the pandas and left it at that.

I also enjoyed watching the red pandas, which are not very closely related to the black-and-white ones, but are related somehow to raccoons. They are also known as lesser pandas. These little animals are about the size of a smallish house dog, and run around their enclosures quick as foxes.

After we had toured about five enclosures and, enraptured, watched the pandas eating and playing, we went to watch a documentary about panda breeding.

This video taught me that pandas are in danger of extinction not only because of the reasons I had always been told--hunting, scarcity of food, demolition of their natural habitat, etc.

They also make very poor parents.

The mother panda is often so surprised by her two-second first birth that she starts to smack the pink, sausage-sized mewling cub around, thinking it's a tiny, squalling attacker. Apparently, a large number, if not most, first-born panda cubs in the wild are killed by their own mothers.

At the research base, scientists have to be on call around the clock when a pregnant panda is ready to birth, in order to dart inside the panda cage and rescue the baby.

They are also picky eaters.

They love to eat, eating most of the day that they weren't sleeping, but of the edible bamboo available to them, they only prefer to eat a few varieties of it. This means that some pandas apparently starve to death even when there is appropriate food for them. Some thousands of years ago (or longer?) the panda was a carnivore, but over time switched to a bamboo-only diet.

Speaking of diet, I asked about trying some spicy Sichuan panda hot pot, but my Chinese friend laughed at me.

I guess some things are sacred.

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