In pursuit of pandas

20:56, Nov 21 2012
Chengdu
RARE ENCOUNTER: China's Chengdu Research Base gives tourists the chance to get cuddly with giant panda bears.

There is a very real risk that the  giant panda will become extinct. That's despite international efforts to save the species.

It is not known exactly how many giant pandas are left in the world, but the United Nations estimates that about 800 live in the wild and 100 in captivity.

My Wendy Wu Tours guide puts the total figure instead at around 1600.

Those in captivity mostly live in China in zoos, breeding centres and special reserves, such as Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in the country's southwest Sichuan province.

''Once, the giant panda roamed mountain lowlands from Myanmar (Burma) through northern Vietnam and much of eastern and southern China,'' reads the UN Works online, ''but farming, development and  clear-cutting have destroyed the bamboo forests that make up their natural habitat.

''The situation is dire, with an increasing loss of habitat and development as a result of China's burgeoning population, demand  for land and resources sector, the UN says.

The wild panda also falls victim to poachers after their fur, despite strict government laws that hand life sentences to those  convicted of selling fur on the black market.

The Chinese consider the giant panda a national treasure, and  it's evident just how much they're loved when one visits Chengdu Research Base. The centre is dedicated to giant panda conservation, with an emphasis on breeding, and research into reproduction, nutrition, medicine and behaviour.

It's best to arrive there early, as crowds of domestic tourists can be large.When I visit, my Wendy Wu Tours guide leads me away from the hordes to a nursery of panda cubs, with black and white-ish coats. 

Eight of the cuddly creatures are sprawled out across terraced bamboo platforms among vibrant green vegetation, playing and eating.

One ventures toward the concrete and timber barrier where tourists clamber for the best photograph and stare in awe. Giant pandas are solitary animals, so when these guys mature they'll be placed in their own enclosures, where they'll divide their time between munching copious amounts of bamboo, sleeping in or against trees and playing.I explore these other enclosures, which include a 'giant panda  kindergarten', as well as a red panda compound.

Across the 100-hectare reserve there is also a panda hospital,  museum and cinema, and - the piece de resistance - a small building  where tourists can have their very own giant panda encounter.

While lining up among a throng of mainly Chinese and American visitors, I fail to hold back tears brought on by the excitement of nursing a cub.

After a half hour wait, during which time I cover myself in a plastic poncho, booties and gloves, it's my turn.

It's an overwhelmingly emotional experience, sitting on a timber  bench with your arms wrapped around the belly of a giant panda. 

They're incredibly beautiful creatures, that are surprisingly heavy at such a young age and have thick sponge-like fur.

Two minutes pass way too quickly and I am forced to say goodbye  to this endearing fellow. He's oblivious to my departure,  preoccupied with the honey that's been dabbed on his paws by keepers.

Even though it's clear I leave little impression on him, I know he'll stay with me for a lifetime.

Let's just hope he survives a lifetime and his species many more.

GETTING THERE: Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is in Chengdu, the  capital of Sichuan province in southwest China. More information on  the facility can be found at www.panda.org.cn/english.

China Southern Airlines flies from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane,  Perth and Auckland to the major Chinese cities of Guangzhou, Beijing, Chongqing and Urumqi.

The airline will also fly direct between Cairns and Guangzhou from December. For flights visit  www.flychinasouthern.com or call 1300 889 628.

STAYING THERE: The five-star Sofitel Wanda Chengdu is centrally located on the  Jingjiang River. The hotel features an indoor heated pool, spa,  sauna, gym, beauty salon and five dining outlets.

Rates start from  2000RMB (NZ$395) per night; www.sofitel.com.

PLAYING THERE: Aside from the giant panda enclosures, the 100-hectare property  also features a giant panda hospital, museum, cinema and research  centre, as well as a red panda compound. The cost of holding a giant panda cub and having your photo taken with your own camera is approximately 1300RMB ($255).

Wendy Wu Tours has a range of fully escorted group tours of  China as well as itineraries for independent travellers, such as  the Chengdu Short Stay (from $875 pp twin-share). For more information go to www.wendywutours.com.au

The writer travelled as a guest of Wendy Wu Tours, Chengdu  Wanda Sofitel and China Southern Airlines

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