For the last few years, I have been inquiring from several travel agents in China specialized in Safaris of the possibility of arranging a tour to see the Giant Panda in the wild. But, most of them responded negatively since the chance of seeing them in the wild are very low. Their natural habitat is mostly above 1,500 meters elevation in mountainous forest terrain mainly in the Sichuan Province, while few are found in neighboring Shaanxi and Gansu. The access to these areas are usually on foot and difficult. The Giant Panda’s favorite food is bamboo, which is also abundant in those areas. In 2016, I found an organization based in Colorado, USA named Natural Habitat Adventures (NHA) which organizes tours on the wild side of China mainly focused on the Giant Panda.

Giant Pandas are solitary animals. Only in the mating season from March to May, a male and female will get together. However the success rate in mating is very low. The gestation period varies from 3 to 5 months and normally the Panda gives birth to one. A newborn weighs from 100 to 150 grams while an adult will weigh from 100 to 150 kgs.

As planned, on the 20th April 2017, I landed at Chengdu airport in Sichuan Province where a representative from NHA met me. Chengdu is also known as the home of the Giant Panda. It was interesting to note that there were images/cutouts of Giant Pandas on either side of the road from the airport to the hotel in the city while many businesses and restaurants have used the Panda as a symbol on their signboards. At the dinner hosted by NHA, the tour leader Justin who is from the USA briefed the group consisting of only five participants. He did a slide show showcasing his previous experiences and detailed the itinerary for the next 10 days. His assistant Philip was a local tour guide. Philip, a Tibetan Buddhist was very helpful to us during the tour. His knowledge on Tibetan Buddhism as well as wild life in China was good.

We stayed at the Shangri-La hotel in Chengdu for the first 2 nights. During this time, we visited two Giant Panda research and breeding centers in the Dujiangyan Panda Valley located on the outskirts of Chengdu, approximately an hour from the hotel. We were able see Giant Pandas together with cubs in captivity and also the Red Panda. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has downgraded the Giant Panda from “endangered” to “vulnerable” since there were 1,864 Pandas in the wild at the end of 2013. In captivity the number is around 350 of which 15% are outside China.

On the morning of April 22nd, we headed by road in a comfortable Toyota Coaster mini bus towards Tangjiahe with an overnight stopover in Jiangyou. Tangjiahe is located in Qingchuan County on the northwestern edge of the Sichuan Basin at an altitude of over 1,500 meters, a five hour drive from Chengdu.  We stayed three nights at Tangjiahe Guest House located inside the Wild Panda Nature Reserve; a 100,000-acre sanctuary. The World Wild Life (WWF) rated this location as a Grade 1 national reserve with a population of at least 60 Giant Pandas. The reserve also is home to more than 1,200 takin and 1,000 golden monkeys while it offers opportunities for bird photography of some rare birds in China. On the 24th early morning we were on wheels in search of Pandas, as well as other animals and birds inhabiting the reserve. Interestingly, I had a glimpse of a Crested Kingfisher, a bird I had not seen in my 50 years of wild life photography. I managed to photograph a number of birds I had not seen before including the elegant Golden Pheasant. Justin and Philip together with the park guide tried their best to find a Panda, scanning the landscape with binoculars, but was unsuccessful.

Early the following morning, once again we went in search of Pandas but this time on foot. We walked approximately 2.2 kms, climbed 600 meters, but had no luck and retuned to the lodge for a late lunch. Even though we had no Panda sightings it was a great adventurous experience for me and for the others who joined. In the afternoon, I walked along the Hongshi River which runs by the lodge in search of the Crested Kingfisher. I had a sighting but no photographs.

The morning after, we left Tangjiahe after breakfast to our next destination, Jiuzhaigou, which took us the whole day on a climbing road to an elevation of 3,000 meters with few stops on the way. Jiuzhaigou Valley is on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. We spent three nights at the Sheraton Jiuzhaigou Resort located in the city. During our stay in Jiuzhaigou, we visited Jiuzhaigou National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a UN Biosphere Reserve deep in the Minshan Mountains. The photographs taken were mainly of lakes, waterfalls, and terraced limestone pools filled with aquamarine water with some birds that live at high altitude.

 

On 29th April morning, after breakfast we drove to the Jiuzhaigou airport, which was almost a two hour ride on a scenic route via the Tibetan Plateau and boarded a flight to Chengdu where we arrived for a late lunch.

Next morning, our last day of the tour, we left the hotel at 7am to visit another Panda breeding center in Wolong located in Wenchuan county, 150 km from the hotel. We were told that there were over 100 Pandas in the wild in the Wolong Mountains before the catastrophic earthquake hit in 2008. The new Wolong Panda Research Centre provides facilities to visitors to engage in Panda keeper programs to understand how to take care of Pandas and to take pictures with them. I too participated in the program, and it was an unforgettable experience.

On the 1st of May my return flight was at mid night and hence I had the chance to do some bird photography at 2 leisure parks close to the hotel in the city. I returned home on the 3rd of May via Singapore.

 

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated – Indira Gandhi

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