It’s happened!! After months of learning about Giant Pandas, seeing videos about them, writing blogs about them, and constructing an Action Plan to minimise the impact of tourism to them – I have seen a Giant Panda in the wild!!! Even now, nine days after this experience, I am still smiling when I think about it. Being winter and therefore having an increased opportunity to see them, my former manager, Mr Shi Jian, organised a car for me to spend a few days with one of our best trackers, Zhang Yongwen, in Changqing Reserve.
It is estimated that Changqing National Nature Reserve has approximately 100 pandas within our reserve boundaries. During June to September each year, the majority of these live in the high mountains, descending to the valleys for the colder months. According to Zhang Yongwen, due to their need to conserve energy, Pandas in Changqing often meander around existing tracks such as former logging roads, and Takin tracks. This means, that when tracking pandas in Changqing you walk along these valley tracks, and alongside rivers in search of signs that pandas have been nearby recently. Signs include freshly broken bamboo, a trail of fresh scats and if you’re really lucky the sound of bamboo breaking in the distance. However, as pandas meander off the tracks to find nice places to sit, chew bamboo and sleep – once you think you’re close to one, you often find yourself scrambling hand and foot up steep bamboo covered hills. Some may not like this side of tracking, but not me, I love it! It makes me feel alive, every scratch and bruise making me more determined, heart pumping loudly (‘will I see a panda this time’), it makes me feel like David Attenborough or a BBC cameraman!
Anyway, I digress, lets return to Jan 18th, the day I saw the panda. Zhang Yongwen and I had spent a long but enjoyable day, crossing rivers, and scaling various beautiful valleys. It was about 4:30pm and time was running out with dark approaching. Tired, and a little disappointed we decided to try one more valley. Thinking we needed a bit of re-energising (and also having a gut feeling) before we entered the valley I stopped, and said to Zhang Yongwen ‘this is it. This is THE valley. The valley where I will see my first panda in the wild.’ He and I laughed and we began walking. Not five meters in we came across a scat with insects on it, I looked at him expectantly ‘this is fresh’ he said, my heart started racing. Maybe we really would see one here! From there we continued our walk, coming across more and more freshly broken pieces of bamboo, and scats. We scrambling up a river, and a couple of nearby small hills, following the trail. After about half an hour of silence and on the second fork in the track we sat down quietly, straining our ears for the sound of bamboo cracking. Five minutes passed. Nothing. Deflated, Zhang Yongwen broke the silence “I think the panda is playing games with us”, and right as the words came out of his mouth we heard it – a large snap! Eyes like saucers, we fell silent again, and started on all fours towards the sound. Zhang Yongwen gave me the thumbs us (translation: it’s a panda!)… we continued until we got our first sighting – a pair of fury black and white ears above the bamboo. It was surreal. We acted like a couple of kids, muffling our screams but giving high fives and grinning like crazy! Unable to move in thick bamboo quietly, the panda was aware of our presence. He (apparently a young male) wasn’t scared of us, but gave us a couple of warning growls when he felt we were getting too close. We followed him up a hill to a small clearing. Only meters away from him, we were able to take photos of him eating and then scenting a local tree.
Having clearly worn-out our welcome, he wanted to show us who was boss and started to walk towards us slowly, staring us down. In a panic we fled in opposite directions, Zhang Yongwen leaving his camera case (including 10,000rmb lens) on the ground, in the confusion. Just like when watching young pandas playing in the Chengdu Breeding Centre or a zoo, the young male had found a new plaything! It picked up the camera case, chewed it a little, and rolled around with it on the ground. I stood there taking happy snaps, loving every moment –completely ignorant of the case’s precious contents. Meanwhile poor Zhang Yongwen sweated, mind in overdrive working out his next move. After a couple of realistic faux animal noises the panda left, and Zhang Yongwen retrieved his case – fortunately lens in tact!
When sharing the experience with friends, one of them asked, “is it true they look and act like men in giant panda suits?” Haha. I could not have described it better myself!
A once in a lifetime experience.