Recently at Panda Valley, Rama Callan and I had the pleasure of welcoming a group of nine high school students and two teachers from the Drew School of San Francisco, California. We met the group at the front gate, where we found them emulating the poses of Po and the other Kung Fu Panda statues that were recently installed. They were doing a remarkably good job with their impressions, and I could immediately tell this was going to be a good visit. Once their photo shoot was finished, we headed into Panda Valley.
As you might imagine, after working with pandas in China for two and a half years, I’ve become pretty accustomed to seeing pandas. While I still find them fascinating animals, and continue to learn new things about them through my interactions, I don’t get a rush of excitement upon seeing them each day. One of the reasons I enjoy school groups and other special visitors is because I get to experience their enthusiasm, which helps remind me just how special my job is.
As we approached the first set of cubs I could see the faces of the students and teachers light up. The cubs, Ni Xiao and Ya Da (the siblings of our release cubs), were playing outside in the yard, climbing and dangling on the trees as their mother ate on the ground. They are undeniably cute, so we spent several minutes watching them play. Eventually I had to drag the group along for the rest of the tour.
At Enclosure 3 Rama went inside with the youngest cubs in our Reintroduction Program, Ni Da (a girl panda) and Ya Xiao (a boy panda), to demonstrate how we interact with the cubs being prepared for release. I stayed out with the rest of the group to explain our process and answer questions. One year old panda cubs are some of the most adorable animals in the world, especially when they are going crazy playing. They love to roll around and chase us.
We watched Rama interact with the cubs. It was easy to see in the way they played together that she has developed a strong bond with Ni Da and Ya Xiao during her daily interactions over the past few months. I went in to say hi to the cubs and wrestle for a few minutes. Rama and I showed the students how to distinguish Ya Xiao from Ni Da. At first, all pandas look very similar. Over time, however, you learn minor physical characteristics that can help you tell them apart. For example, Ni Da has a bump on her nose and large white patches on the backs of her hind legs; Ya Xiao, in contrast, has very long fur and black lips. Their personalities differ considerably as well. Ya Xiao (the boy panda) is relentlessly playful and goofy. Ni Da (the girl panda) is more stand-offish but can be very affectionate at times. All too soon it was time to position the cubs on the opposite side of the room so that we could make our escape (the cubs always want to follow us). We headed back out to continue with the program.
Down in Education Village Rama gave an excellent presentation about panda ecology and behavior, the threats to giant pandas, and the conservation, research, and reintroduction program of the Global Cause Foundation and Chengdu Panda Base. Throughout and following the presentation the group asked more questions and had more poignant comments than what you would typically get at a scientific conference. It was wonderful, and Rama and I were surprised. At least one student was interested in pursuing a career in research or conservation, which was very exciting to hear. We need more bright, enthusiastic young people to join our team.
What was supposed to be a two-hour trip nearly ended three hours after they arrived, mostly because of their enthusiastic questions and conversations. I was pretty bummed about them leaving, but thankfully Jillian, their excellent tour guide, invited us to lunch. After I got us a bit lost on the way to a farmhouse restaurant, we happened into a lovely spot with great food. Rama and I got to know the students a bit more, including the fact that they have more Chinese language skills than I do (and I live here) and their soccer team won the championship this year, GO DRAGONS!
After a great lunch with way too much food (typical in China), Rama and I returned to Panda Valley and the Drew School group continued on their journey through China.
If you are interested in similar experiences and would like to help support our work to save the giant pandas, check out Our Donor Trips. These excursions provide essential support to our Giant Panda Reintroduction Project, and give our donors special access visits to meet the team and see them working with our pandas first hand.