10 August 2010

The Frequent Flyer: Living with Pandas [Part 2]

The Shaanxi Wild Animal Rescue and Research Centre is home to 25 giant pandas, 5 of which are babies including one very rare brown coloured one, unfortunately "Mr. Panda Baby Keeper" was described by our guide Peter as "not a very nice man" so we only really got to see them briefly once and instructed not to take photos! I did however catch glimpses of the babies throughout the day as their house was between Niu Niu and San San's and managed to get a few sneaky photos of the cubbies when I saw them playing outside although Jiena warned me not to let the other keepers catch me taking them, I felt like the pandarazzi! The pandas I did have access to were Niu Niu, San San, Ping Ping and our next door neighbours Qin Chuan and Le Le, the others we didn't really see much of and of course the language barrier made it difficult to converse with many of the other keepers.

In my first few days panda duties had me tired out but once I got used to the routine and the manual labour (because Cate hasn't done much manual labour before) duties only really took up a few hours of the day, most of the time we had to ourselves to explore our surroundings. The centre was home to many other animals besides pandas, unfortunately their lifestyle was not as luxurious as the pandas, where as each panda had their own large outdoor enclosure full of foliage and trees and their own keeper at their beck and call these poor creatures had small enclosures with little or no stimulation and only a few keepers to tend to all of them.

Unfortunately the Chinese Government only funds the upkeep of the pandas (not the centre) which means the other animals housed there get the raw end of the deal and as much as I really, really wanted to help the other animals in my 3 weeks there we were unable to make any contact with the other keepers, so instead we took the initiative and gave ourselves the duty of feeding them extra treats each day and would buy fruit, vegetables and the occasional take away from the local restaurant to feed to them.

I adored the Moon Bears, especially little baby bear Wan Wan, who I presumed were rescued from bile farms. Each morning or afternoon I would visit them with treats of apples, pears, jam sandwiches and the occasional fruit pop on hot days and they seemed so delighted to see me almost smiling, which was in stark contrast to the privileged pandas, because keepers are slaves to their pandas every need and demand! Pandas have no idea just how lucky they are to have a country dedicated to prolonging their survival.

Louguantai is the birthplace of Taoism, a statue of Lao Tzu overlooks the village and aside from the centre the main attraction is the Taoist Temple. Despite its remote location the centre does get a fair amount of visitors, bus loads would arrive in the morning to get a glimpse of the pandas, who normally at that time were tucking into their breakfast bamboo or waiting for their milk and "cookies" to be served. I was often asked when the pandas would be out and even once ordered to get them to come and entertain the visitors by a very pushy tour guide, I of course refused and replied that they are free to come out when they want to. Believe me pandas won't do anything they don't want to do!

Life in Louguantai was very laid back, the days seemed to go quite quickly although it felt like I had been staying there for months! The locals were quite friendly if a little curious about these strange Westerners living with the pandas, I often felt like we were the ones display at times, especially when visitors would wander down to our lodgings and peer through the window at us. Louguantai is a very beautiful village set in the foothills of the Qingling Mountains, visitors would describe the misty mountains as paradise and although there isn't very much to do there after 3 weeks it really did become home to me.

I felt like I was reasonably knowledgeable on the "Panda Industry" before I left but I learnt so many more things I wouldn't have had the opportunity to by actually being there, talking to the keepers and doing the jobs they do. My last day at the centre was quite laid back and easy, I almost wished that the pandas would cause a big fuss and try to escape (which Qin Chuan had already tried a few times) or even just make a big mess of their enclosures just so I'd be more involved with them before I left. As I said my farewell to Jiena who had not only taught me so much about the pandas but about life in China, she thanked me for helping her improve her English and of course helping her look after the pandas. She said I was the smartest volunteer she had worked with and she had never been able to trust a volunteer to work alone before like she had with me and that I would make a very good panda keeper one day, let's just say it's definitely something I would put consideration into after my time there.

 As my plane left China and the new friends I'd made (some of the human variety) I felt tears welling in my eyes, I had no idea how attached I had become to the place after only being there a short while. It proved to be the amazing opportunity I had always thought it would be, yes it had its problems to but the positive experiences I had there far outweigh the negative and it will be something I will never ever forget.

  Certified Panda Nanny!

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