Friday, October 9, 2009
I wasn’t entirely convinced it was worth the 20-hour train ride to go to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, for one purpose and one purpose only -- to see China’s national treasure, the giant panda. But my friends were on a mission to adore, and I was on a mission to have a good time with them, no matter where we were or how far we had to travel. So a day after National Day, the five of us set off by sleeper car.
We headed for the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base the day after arriving in Chengdu. Because of the shrinking natural habitat of pandas due to development, breeding centers like the one in Chengdu are all the more important to maintain biodiversity. Some scientists estimate the giant panda will be extinct in two to three generations.
The pandas at the base might as well have been living in a bubble. Manicured lawns and bushes. Arched bamboo shafts along the path. The sprawling base contains several outdoor feeding and play areas for giant pandas and the raccoon-like red pandas, equipped with jungle gym and swings. We looked through a window into the kitchen where a woman wearing surgical mask and gloves was packing dough into mooncake-shaped molds. Panda bread.
“These pandas eat better that most people,” one friend noted.
I stood in the middle of a large and growing crowd outside the “kindergarten” pen wondering how these furry creatures could elicit delighted squeals from little kids to old men alike. I looked from the munching, hanging, climbing, rolling animals to the ogling crowd. I’m not sure if biodiversity was at the forefront of their minds when they watched the pandas straddling a tree branch.
But is the cute factor enough to keep a species alive that would be extinct otherwise? One BBC presenter has argued the giant panda is too expensive to try to save. He said the giant panda had “gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac.” He certainly has a valid point, but I think the cute factor is all too powerful.
It was in the Sunshine Nursery where I too fell into the trap of adorableness. Curled up in a moon-shaped crescent was a baby just a few months old, its black markings still covered by a soft white fuzz. And a whimper escaped me. I couldn’t help it. Something about that helpless little guy grabbed me and certainly biodiversity was not on my mind.