Two animals share the name panda: the giant panda, black-eyed symbol of endangered species worldwide; and the unrelated, racoon-like red panda, to which the Nepalese name “panda” was originally applied in the West. The Chinese call the giant panda da xiongmao, meaning “big bear-cat”.
News of giant pandas first reached Europe in the nineteenth century through the French zoologist and traveller Père Armand David, who came across a skin in China in 1869. They are decidedly odd creatures, bearlike, endowed with a carnivore’s teeth and a digestive tract poorly adapted to their largely vegetarian diet. Though once widespread in southwestern China, they’ve probably never been very common, and today their endangered status is a result of human encroachment combined with the vagaries of their preferred food – fountain bamboo – which periodically flowers and dies off over huge areas, leaving the animals to make do with lesser shrubs and carrion, or starve. Half of Sichuan’s panda habitat was lost to logging between 1974 and 1989, which, coupled with the results of a bamboo flowering during the 1980s, reduced the total wild population to just over a thousand animals, scattered through reserves in Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou.
Some 8km northeast of central Chengdu, the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base (大熊猫繁育研究基地, dàxióngmāo fányù yánjiū jīdì) offers close-up views of both giant and arboreal red pandas. Perhaps uniquely for China, this zoo is a pleasant place, full of lawns for visitors and spacious pens for the animals, who are fed truckloads of fresh bamboo by concerned staff. Try to get here early, as the pandas slump into a stupor after munching their way through piles of bamboo at around 10am.