Gaining access to China’s endangered giants

Gaining access to China’s endangered giants

Numbers of giant pandas have reached critically low levels due to the encroachment of humans, their only predator on their habitat. Disabled traveller and writer Penny Batchelor went to Sichuan to see conservation in action.

The hour-long taxi ride from Chengdu airport to our hotel at the foot of Mount Qingcheng in China’s Sichuan province helped me grasp what a huge place China is. Hearing that over 1.3 billion people live in the country meant little to me – who can envisage such a large number? – but the relentless urban sprawl from the city on the drive hit the point home. Whether it was grey, Communist-style apartment blocks or more modern shopping centres, the sprawl just kept on sprawling, with no substantial amounts of green to be seen, just miles and miles of roads.

China needs roads and other infrastructure to serve its increasing population.

Sadly as the human population of China rises, numbers of its most recognisable animal, the Giant Panda, are plummeting. I’d come to Chengdu to see the country’s national symbol with my own eyes but, on that first drive, I also saw the disastrous effect population growth was having on the pandas’ natural habitat.

Pandas eating bamboo
Pandas eating bamboo

Think of a panda and the image of a cuddly, bamboo-eating bear arises. Don’t be fooled by its cuteness however: their delightful looks mask a physical strength that surpasses even that of a lion or tiger. Before Westerners set eyes on them the Chinese killed them for their skins – apparently panda meat is too sour to eat – but it was only when Western hunters arrived in the 19th century that tracking them down became an upper-class sport. In the 1920s the US President’s sons Teddy Jr and Kermit Roosevelt tried to become the first Westerners to shoot one dead. Fellow American Ruth Harkness went one further. She smuggled a panda cub back to the US by boat from Shanghai, bottle-feeding it on the way.

Panda mania went worldwide and in the second half of the 20th century China gave panda cubs to foreign zoos as a mark of international diplomacy. Now, however, it fiercely guards its national symbol, striving to encourage mating in captivity and breed more pandas that will eventually, if all goes to plan, be set free back in the wild.

High up Mount Qingcheng is the panda’s traditional home. Their only predators are man and the also endangered snow leopard. Due to loss of habitat the estimated 1,860 pandas left in the wild have been driven further and further up the mountain to search for enough bamboo to feed their 60 pounds a day diet.

British Airways started to fly a direct route from London Heathrow to Chengdu in 2014 and this has been a boon for panda tourists like me. The best-known panda sanctuary, located in the centre of town, is where the breeding programme takes place and panda cubs are looked after until around the age of one. Not being a fan of big cities I headed for Chengdu’s latest purpose-built sanctuary, aptly named Panda Valley, located near Mount Qingcheng.

Panda Valley sign
Panda Valley

Panda Valley opened to the public in spring 2015. Being newly built it’s very nearly physically accessible. Wheelchair users and people who want to avoid steps have to go the long way round, but there’s only one enclosure that has a couple of steps up to it and all the others are on the level or accessible by a ramp. I couldn’t find any information specifically for visitors with disabilities.

Seeing a panda up close was an experience I’ll never forget. Our hotel’s guest experience manager had arranged for us to arrive at Panda Valley at 9am to correspond with feeding time. It’s a time when the majority of the pandas are eating bamboo, which they can 12 hours a day doing. Two cubs were too interested in climbing trees – although were much better and going up than coming back down again – tumbling and play fighting to eat, whilst one cub slept cuddled up to its mum. My heart couldn’t help but melt.

Most of the enclosures replicate a natural wooded environment. Two, however, were made of grey concrete and our guide explained that these are holding enclosures where pandas go when they are in the process of being moved to a different area.

All too soon the pandas began to doze and it was time to go back to our hotel, Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain. It opened in 2015 to cater for both panda-loving visitors, whether Chinese or international, and tourists who want to climb Mount Qingcheng. The mountain is famous for being one of the places Taoism, an ancient tradition of philosophy and religious belief, originated from. My non-disabled husband enjoyed climbing the mountain and seeing the shrines but I’d been advised that it was completely inaccessible for anyone with walking difficulties. Instead I enjoyed the facilities at the hotel, particularly the free ice cream in ‘The Square’.

Travelling as a disabled person in China proved to be much easier than I expected. The airport was geared up to help and indeed demand is such that a new airport is in the process of being built. The English-speaking manager at the hotel booked our taxi travel for us and advised on accessible places to visit.

When it was time to leave, I fondly remembered the folk tale we’d been told about how pandas got their distinctive facial markings. Two thousand years ago a little village girl was playing with a panda cub when a snow leopard disturbed them and attacked. The girl threw herself on the panda to protect it but in doing so was killed herself. The baby panda and his family went to the little girl’s funeral wearing black bands to show respect. They cried and hugged each other, wiping their eyes in their grief. The black marks from the bands turned their white black forever.

How to get there

British Airways flies direct to Chengdu from London Heathrow. Penny booked her hotel room directly with Six Senses.

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