We were volunteering at a breeding centre for giant pandas in China near Xi’an and up early. Our driver “Jhow” picked us up by 0745, scooping up ‘Tiger’, the Project Coordinator on the way. It took about 20 mins from the village where we were staying to the old panda breeding centre. This centre still housed the rare birds including the Crested Ibis, Qinling Golden Snubnose monkeys and Qinling taquins.
We were kitted out with ‘gum’ boots and special shoes to be used at the breeding centre. However they could not get ‘gum’ boots (Wellington boots) in China big enough for Phil and Tim – sizes 44 and 45 respectively! This was a problem as they need to wear the gum boots for mucking out the panda indoor areas and also the outdoor ‘playgrounds’. So they gave Phil two pairs of black shoes – one for the inside area and one for the outside ‘playgrounds’ – and Tim squeezed his size 45 feet into his boots!
We walked up the hill some 20 minutes to the new Panda Breeding Centre (only on first day) which is very hot on disinfectant and preventing diseases coming into the centre. The breeding centre is purely for the conservation and breeding of the pandas and not open for tourism.
On arrival , we had to walk on wet, disinfected mats and enter a room where us humans, and our bags, were sprayed with a disinfectant mist. After that, we changed into our black soft shoes provided and we had to leave our personal objects in the changing room. Tiger took us for a tour to see all the pandas scattered on the hillside.
The keepers allocated Tim to the 4 ‘babies’, actually born 2 years ago at the breeding centre, but still very much juvenile (and a bit delinquent too – one of them tried to do a runner once…) When we arrived there, one of the pandas was up a tree in the playground and the two handlers were trying to coax it down. It was astonishing that something so big could climb up what appeared to be a small tree and not fall through the branches! Clearly it distributed its weight well and chose the best branches to support it.
The location of this new centre is fabulous – quiet and peaceful. The air is pure, the views great (lucky pandas!) and each of the 21 pandas has a fabulous individual ‘playground’ enclosure. The vegetation in these playgrounds is wild, so very natural, and they all have running mountain water streaming through for the pandas to drink. They have a wooden platform to lie on under the shade of the trees. Each panda also has an indoor area. The keepers only close the doors between the indoor or outdoor areas when they want to clean them and isolate the pandas.
Phil went with another keeper and was working with just one panda and I went with another lovely girl and also worked with two pandas. One of my pandas was a 30 years old female – which is ancient in panda years – with a paw missing – a rescue – and the other a 5 year old male. They look so cute and I could spend hours just watching them! However the keepers warned us not to try and touch them or get within a metre of the cage wall. They can easily stretch through the bars and grab you. Tiger used to be a keeper and has a scar on his hand where he got bitten by a panda whilst doing ‘panda enrichment’ . ‘Panda Enrichment’ is tempting the panda with a carrot to stretch up, walk on his hind legs, turn roly-polies – a sort of ‘keep-fit for pandas’.
There is a team of some 15 keepers rotating and they need to look after the pandas 7 days a week so fill in for each others when one is off . My lovely keeper on my first day was filling in and she really spent a lot of time trying to speak to me (via a translation app) and showing me what to do. How to feed the bamboo shoots, to cut the carrots for the feeds, pick up the poos and discarded bamboo shoots from the cages. We keep the poos for each of the pandas separate as these are weighed daily and a record kept. I also helped disinfect the indoor areas, hose them down and pick up poos and discarded bamboo husks in the outside playgrounds. The pandas seem to consume a vast amount of food over the day! In addition to the above, they have powdered milk mixed with water, water mixed with honey, a lot of carrots (the older one), panda bread and apples. They are veritable eating machines and just lay there whilst food is provided for them. I had visions of “Audrey”’ in ”Little Shop of Horrors” and her “Feed me!”
There are a lot of periods where there is nothing to do so luckily I had been warned and took my phone and earphones and had downloaded a story called “The Good Earth’’ by Pearl S. Buck and listened to that.
We all went up to lunch at the entrance to the centre – disinfecting first – and the food was amazing! Huge quantities and lots of different vegetables and dishes. (This was a challenge for Tim who traditionally had never eaten any vegetables. He tucked in and seemed to enjoy them!). Lunch is definitely a high-light (although on subsequent days, I took a fork with me…too slow with the chop sticks!) Also, they don’t seem to drink water with meals but instead have a separate watery soup which goes on the side.
(On one day, after lunch, the keepers took us around the site – which is huge with a lot of unused land and we went and ate wild mulberries and cherries off the trees. The fruit tasted amazing and I had never tasted mulberries before.)
After lunch the handlers normally have a sleep on bunk beds in each of the panda areas and this was very much welcome after the early start and heavy mucking out sessions!
We were there for one week and it was an awesome experience – I feel so privileged and I could just watch the pandas all day!
Jill, Phil and Tim Golding
If you are interested in this rare opportunity to volunteer as an assistant to the keepers at this panda breeding centre, check out our website page on
and contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a ring on 01483 203405 or 07833 208 158 for a chat. It could be combined with learning Mandarin in a language school in beautiful Yangshuo.