Aura Travel - Bamboo & Bear Hugs

-- Rachel's 1 Day Panda Volunteer Experience in Dujiangyan

China Discovery is an extremely friendly team of expert tour guides offering all the best China panda tours at local prices.

Every visit helps support panda research and care for these magnificent, endangered animals.

The giant panda is a “living fossil” and probably represents the most powerful symbol when it comes to species conservation. With a population of around 2000, the distinctive black and white animal that has retained the same form over millions of years, is a national treasure in China and one of the rarest, most endangered bears in the world. A one-on-one encounter with a giant panda is a bucket list highlight and a must-do when you are in China. During a recent trip to Shanghai, I grabbed my backpack and took a weekend detour to Chengdu to learn all about pandas.

Close Encounter with Giant Panda

Best China Panda Tour Starts from Chengdu

Chengdu, the capital of southwest China’s Sichuan province where 80% of the world’s pandas live, is the nearest metropolis to the endangered species’ natural habitat. It is the only place on earth with both wild and captive giant pandas, offering the best opportunities to volunteer and interact with these adored animals.

The region has dedicated breeding centres and sanctuaries where visitors can observe these incredible creatures close-up. The Giant Panda Breeding and Research Base in Chengdu is a non-profit 92-acre home to more than 80 adults and cubs. It is one of the most respected panda conservation centres and provides excellent viewing, including a panda nursery where you can watch tiny babies, just one or two months old, sleeping in cots or on the floor. For a more intimate, quieter setting with a unique opportunity to volunteer, a local tour company (China Discovery) suggests I take a 90-minute road trip to a panda centre in Dujiangyan. (Now Dujiangyan Panda Basa and Wolong Panda Base both open panda volunteer program to experience panda keeper life.)

Golden Sea of Rape Flowers on the Way to Dujiangyan

The extra journey is definitely worth it. It is springtime and mile after mile we pass sprawling farmlands covered in stunning “ golden seas” of rapeseed (canola) flowers in full bloom. In China, rapeseed flowers are grown to extract oil for cooking. My guide, May, tells me the oil has many health benefits, reduces cholesterols and helps maintain healthy joint, brain and heart functions. The fields are simply beautiful and I cannot resist but to ask to pullover for a short walk through the giant flowerbed.

Dujiangyan Panda Volunteer Program

Rachel's Enjoyable Meet with the Golden Paeseed Flowers in Early Spring (Middle March)

Arrival in the Morning, Panda Keeper Stars

Short after, we arrive at a tranquil and magnificent setting called Dujiangyan Panda Valley. It is a picturesque little village with panda signs and symbols everywhere, designed just for pandas and those who care for them. I am signed up at Dujiangyan Panda Base to partake in their special Panda Keeper Program allowing visitors to administer to the lovely animals as volunteers.

I am immediately given my work overall, gloves, an “all access” pass and put straight to work, instantly coming in close distance to many pandas, including two cute cubs wrestling and rolling around. My first task is cleaning out two panda enclosures - the interior and exterior living quarters. The pandas live in spacious home with trees, grassy mounds, wooden climbing frames with slides and the cubs have a plastic rocking horse and seesaw. The cleaning involves brushing-up bamboo shards and the picking up of endless amount of Panda poop! It is a task I delight in.

Dujiangyan Panda Volunteer Program

Rachel was Enjoy Interesting Volunteer Task - Clean Panda Poop

Once our early morning duty is complete, we move onto panda food preparation. We are shown fresh bamboo, how to break it into smaller pieces for easier ingestion and then where to place pile after pile of broken bamboo. As members of the bear family (but once thought to be raccoons), giant pandas possess the digestive system of a carnivore, but have evolved to depend almost entirely on bamboo. Much of what is eaten is passed as waste and to make up for the inefficient digestion, pandas require large amounts of food. To meet their energy need, pandas need around 30-40 kilos of bamboo each day which can take up to 16 hours to consume.

Pandas have to unique physical features that help them eat bamboo. Broad, flat molar teeth help crush bamboo and an enlarged wrist bone that functions as an opposable thumb, allows them to hold the cane. Relying solely on bamboo has made them vulnerable to any loss of their natural habitat and is currently the major threat to their survival in the wild.

Dujiangyan Panda Volunteer Program

Prepared Bamboo for Panda Eating and Looked How Cute Pandas Enjoy Their Meals

From bamboo breaking, we are summoned to break for lunch and head off down the hill through cherry blossom pathways to the canteen. The food does not disappoint and I’m the first in line to sample the colourful local cuisine. Sichuan Food is well known for its bold hot flavours, particularly the pungency and spiciness from garlic, aniseed, cinnamon, cloves and chili peppers, as well as the unique taste of the famous Sichuan pepper made from prickly ash shrub. It is absolutely delicious and there’s not a morsel left on my plate.

Dujiangyan Panda Volunteer Program

Had Delicious Lunch with Fellow Volunteers, Really Like the Sichuan Cuisine

After lunch and getting to know the few fellow volunteers, we are told it is snack time for the pandas - even though we had just fed them piles of bamboo! We are back inside their homes and come right up close to several pandas, distributing a variety of snacks including apples, carrots and panda bread. Panda paws eagerly reach out for their treats and it is impossible to not notice their huge claws. Although gentle and quiet – and we are calm and careful – panda can bleat, roar, claw, growl, and honk, when they want to. We take many photos and see for ourselves how pandas communicate with humans.

Later in the afternoon, we are brought to the main centre to watch a documentary. It is a moving and tragic tale of this near-extinct species, documenting the earthquake that destroyed Wolong Panda Center, the unsuccessful attempts to release pandas into the wild and the difficulties faced with breeding them. Females are only fertile for one to two days a year and even then, a potential couple many not know how to mate, they may flight or get distracted halfway through. For this reason, breeding centres often resort to panda IVF treatment and numbers have improved significantly. In 1990, there were just 600 pandas left, but thanks to the tremendous work of these panda homes, there are now around 2000.

Immediately after, we are put back to more fun chores. This time we are instructed to make panda bread and begin pounding a nutritious mixture of soy, corn, bamboo and egg. We make interesting and silly shapes for each bread bun before putting it in the oven.

Dujiangyan Panda Volunteer Program

Rachel Designed Some Special Panda Breads

With some free time to access other areas by ourselves, I decide to visit the red panda homes – also part of the breeding centre program. The red panda is another endangered species with a kitten-like face, cinnamon red fur, fluffy ringed tail and astonishing agility. Despite their names, red pandas are not actually related to giant pandas and are currently considered members of their own unique family – the Ailuridae. The giant panda may have worldwide popularity, but this “other bamboo eater” has its own charming allure.

At the end of the day, we are brought together for thanks, a farewell speech and presented with a superb Honorable Panda Keeper Certificate and souvenir remembrance pack. I am quite touched and only wish I was staying longer to learn and see more.

The time I spent witnessing such human dedication is truly eye-opening especially when a species is faced with extinction. One realizes how fleeting fragile life is. Giant pandas certainly share a special message and serve as envoys of peace, conservation and friendship to the world.

How to get there? - Access to Giant Panda Base

Chengdu is an easy non-stop flight from many cities in China including Beijing, Shanghai, Macau, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. There are also dozens of international direct air routes to Chengdu including San Francisco, London, Paris, Bangkok, Frankfurt and Melbourne.

Rachel's Related Panda Volunteer Photos to Inspire You


" Hi, I'm Karen, Rachel's travel consultant. Are you interested in her 1 Day Dujiangyan Panda Volunteer Experience? Want to know her trip itinerary, accommodation, transportation or other arrangements? Feel free to contact me, and I will be glad to tell you more stunning stories about the places she visitied. Or, if you want to customize a tour on your own, I'm always ready to help you work out a perfect travel plan. My dear guests, whether you’ve been China or it’s your first time, we guarantee you a perfect trip with the best price. And I’ll try my best to make sure every client enjoys your China tours with our company. "

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