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Asia

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 inbreeding risks.

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 pheasants.

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.

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