WOLONG (SLEEPY DRAGON) NATURE RESERVE
More giant pandas are in these 800 mountainous wooded square
miles (2,070 km2) north of Chengdu than anywhere else. They are
endangered by habitat loss but also because they got behind the
evolutionary curve—herbivores equipped with
carnivores’ digestive systems and sharp teeth. One theory
has it that their ancestors moved too slowly—as they do
today—to be efficient predators and so started eating
other things. Today they consume largely bamboo, and of the
hundreds of bamboo species, they like only two—the
umbrella and arrow—which they digest so inefficiently (17
percent) they must take in up to 45 pounds (20.4 kg) a day.
Their reproductive approach is not much more efficient.
Females, fertile only two or three days a year, must attract
males quickly in dense woods where these dim-sighted animals
usually can’t see each other more than a few feet away.
Luckily keen senses of smell help them find one another by
scent-marking. After mating, a 16-cell embryo floats free in
the womb, not implanting for perhaps five months. Young are
born not long afterward in a state most nonpouched animals
would consider not viable—blind, hairless, fragile, and
so tiny compared to their burly mothers that a human infant
born in the same size ratio would have a mother weighing around
6,000 pounds (2,724 kg).
Habitat interference is prime cause of their decline. Before
that, pandas held their own on earth for millions of years. An
estimated 1,000 survive today. China has set aside 32 nature
reserves for them, of which best known is Wolong, which had at
recent count about 70. About 120 have been brought into captive
breeding programs, both in China and in cooperation with zoos
elsewhere in the world—in San Diego, New York, Madrid,
Mexico—which have helped fund panda conservation, as have
organizations such as World Wide Fund for Nature. An
encouraging number of captive-born pandas are surviving, and
the program is being expanded elsewhere.
Best hope may be a proposal to incorporate 17 connecting
bamboo corridors in a government plan to set aside an
additional 11,580 square miles (30,000 km2) of panda habitat.
Here pandas could move freely between safe areas, with a
mixing of now-separated panda populations thereby reducing
Pandas, like other endangered species for which land is set
aside, become “umbrella” species for others with
the same needs so that such places become diverse ecosystems
protecting not only these species but others—rare golden
snub-nosed monkeys, Asiatic golden cats, red pandas, Sichuan
takins, reclusive clouded and snow leopards, Pallas’
(steppe) cats. They also protect a great variety of beautiful
songbirds as well as Chinese monal partridges, rare stunning
Temmink’s tragopans with cobalt-blue faces and spotted
fiery-red plumage, and five other species of brilliant
Because of elevation differences in temperature,
warmth-loving species like rhesus monkeys, rare clouded
leopards, and sambar deer, live near hardy species of the
north, such as Thorald’s deer, lynx, bharals or blue
sheep—altogether 96 mammals, 300 bird species, 20 kinds
of reptiles, and 14 amphibians.
It’s not easy to see all these in dense bamboo. Trails
exist, but they can be rough going, precipitous, with cloud
cover, heavy mist, and drenching rain. May–October is
best—winters are numbingly cold. Tours and lodging can be
arranged in Chengdu, 87 miles (140 km) and an eighthour bus
trip southeast. No-frills lodging is sometimes available in a
former loggers’ hotel on the reserve.
Realistically, best chance to see a panda is to visit the
giant panda breeding center north of Chengdu, where a dozen or
so live, some in relatively confined, some in larger habitat
quarters. Best go between 8:30–10 am when they are
feeding—they nap in seclusion much of the day.