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Report on Volunteering at Wolong Panda Reserve

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If you like pandas, you’ll love this opportunity! I certainly did. My stay was June 27 to July 5 at the Wolong Panda Reserve, then one day in Chengdu, the closest major city.

Photo link for 65 photos of pandas, Wolong reserve, and volunteer activities:
http://www.kodakgallery.com/I.jsp?c=k8fpf01.7xij5jx&x=0&y=-4es6kq
If just clicking the link does not work, you can copy and paste it into your browser’s address box.

Agent: Mongol Global Tour Co.
4141 Ball Rd. #187
Cypress, CA 90630
PH#: 714 220-2579
FAX: 714 - 276-6447
toll free (866) 225-0577
www.mongolglobaltours.com

Mongoltour@aol.com
MongolGlobal@aol.com
MongolAdventure@aol.com

I had used Mongol Global successfully in 2005 for a China-Mongolia trip so thought I’d see if they could get me into this panda volunteering program I had heard of. It required a physical examination and a qualifying letter from my doctor, plus I had to write a letter of application to the reserve, but they got me in. I had requested a one-week time frame, which turned out to be about right. There were two high school students who were volunteering for a whole month each, but unlike me, they could speak Mandarin. I was told some people just volunteer for a few days, so that’s an option too.

To get to Wolong, you would most likely fly to Chengdu in Sichuan province, a city of over 10 million. I flew from Guangzhou to Chengdu because I was first visiting a friend. I was picked up at the airport by my guide Shannon and a driver, then we began 3-4 hour trip into the mountains.

We stopped for lunch enroute and had not too spicy Sichuan cuisine and the local noted delicacy—ginko fruit. I found ginko fruit to have the consistency of garbanzo beans with a slight bitterness.

I am prone to motion sickness and the winding, sharp turns on the often bumpy, unpaved one lane highway up the mountain to Wolong caused me to toss my ginko fruit and the rest of lunch. On the return trip I was prepared with a Bonine pill and was fine. So I’d suggest motion sickness medication be taken if you are at all sensitive.

I checked into Panda Inn, about a 5 minute walk from the reserve, then crossed the river (by bridge), entered the gates and headed for the office known as the Wolong Panda Club. Shannon accompanied me for interpreting. I was issued a gigantic one-piece canvas uniform that would serve as my “ticket” for entrance so I could come and go as I pleased. They also provided mesh gloves with rubber coated palms and fingers. These seemed to be ill fitting as well, but once they got wet from the moist bamboo they were fine. The uniform and gloves are the only items provided. I was glad I brought my own rain gear and the pair of rubber Wellington boots I packed proved to be crucial. The employees all have rain gear and rubber boots.

I met my master—yes, you call the panda keepers you assist “master.” I initially worked with Master Dond and then Master Yung. One of the masters at the reserve could speak English, but neither of mine could. I cannot speak Mandarin, but can now say the word for panda—Xiong Mau. It literally translates as Bear Cat.

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    For the first few days, an English and Mandarin speaking high school volunteer also joined us. That really helped with communication and got me into the routine. Plus, with three people working, our tasks were completed quickly.

    But when she left, communication was difficult. It wasn’t hard to receive instructions about my chores because pointing and grunting worked well. The trouble came when we finished one task and there was a lull until the next began. How long would the lull be? Can I leave and go watch the pandas? Do I have time for lunch? Should I just sit on the bench and wait for further instructions? I devised a solution, which was to write down all the times of the day in 15-minute increments on a piece of paper. When we had some down time my master just pointed to the time on the paper to indicate when I should return for more work.

    The parts of Wolong where you can visit and see pandas consist of a variety of panda enclosures in a lovely mountainous setting. All enclosures contain both a traditional cage that is connected to an outdoor enclosure, with a door between the two that can be opened and closed. For most of the day the panda has free roam of both inside and out. Pandas and people are separated with strategically placed cement walls and waterless moats. The layout of the place is quite lovely and very wooded with bamboo and stone walkways. There is an attractive goldfish pond in the center and some bridges that add to the Feng Shui of it all.

    The adult pandas live alone but siblings under approximately age three live together. The one and two year old pandas all live in a rambunctious group. In the various settings, I probably saw over 30 different pandas in total, but there are about 4 times that in the whole reserve, including the unfenced areas. The goals of Wolong include increasing the giant panda population and its gene pool along with returning captive pandas to the wild. One previously captive giant panda was just released into the unfenced part of the reserve a few weeks before I arrived. The plan is to release more.

    Some of the outdoor enclosures are about 10 meters by 10 meters and share one fenced wall with the adjacent enclosure. These cages have traditional bars on them. They are the breeding pens that allow potential mates to be introduced to each other with very limited physical contact initially. I did not see any actual mating—in the wild the female is receptive only 1-3 days during the months of Feb to May. But I did see scent-marking and rubbing of noses through the tightly woven fences, and I heard many courtship calls.

    Another set of enclosures allow outdoor movement for the pandas in an area that is probably 50 meters by 25 meters with grass, trees, boulders, a small stream, and sometimes wooden platforms. Then there are the huge enclosures that stretch well up the steep mountainside so that pandas can roam through forests of bamboo and other plants, hide in the foliage, and climb trees at will. It is much harder to view pandas in these areas.

    Finally there is the nursery, where 16 weaned pandas live together. Their outdoor area is big with varied terrain and includes a slide and swing and many platforms for climbing in addition to grass, boulders, trees, rubber tires, etc.

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    Volunteers assist their master in tending two to three giant panda homes. Here is the approximate routine: From 8:00 am to 9:30 am, with the master, you go to the shed where bamboo is brought in daily by truck and load up a cart. The reserve is not large enough to support all these pandas on what grows there naturally, so local farmers are being paid to grow bamboo. You pull the cart to the first panda home and remove the previous day’s uneaten or stripped bamboo stalks from the outdoor enclosure. Because it is too dangerous for volunteer or master to share the open enclosure with the giant panda, the animal is first lured into the cage with a treat. We did some tests and this was the preference of the four treats offered: #1 a choice stalk of bamboo #2 apple #3 special nutritious panda bread that is baked daily #4 carrot.

    After the old stalks of bamboo are removed, the remaining leaves are raked and swept up. Then any excrement is wisk-broomed into a giant metal dust pan. My first days were lucky as far as excrement goes. The bamboo rich diet results in dry little straw packets. They honestly looked like Easter baskets right down to the woven strands! Unfortunately the end of spring and start of summer means a poorer quality of bamboo and as a result, a much looser stool. The majority of my time was spent cleaning up that looser stool.

    Then new bamboo is hauled into the outdoor enclosure and then the giant panda moves back out of the cage into that outdoor area. The new bamboo serves as the enticement to leave the cage immediately. Now with the panda outside, the cage door is locked again so that cleaning of the indoor structure can occur. Any old bamboo is swept out, along with feces. Every couple of days the cement or ceramic floor and walls of the cage are hosed down and squeegied clean.

    The above process is repeated for each panda site that must be maintained.

    About 10:00 is special feeding, which has a training element to it. The panda is lured back into the cage from outside and usually given the special bread in small pieces, handed through the bars of the cage. Sticking out from each cage is an armrest. The panda is encouraged to sit facing the front of the cage and to put its left arm, palm up, through the bars of the cage, resting the arm on the armrest and grasping a bar at the end of the armrest. The small pieces of bread continue as long as the panda’s arm remains on the armrest, claws grasping the bar. I was pleased to often be able to do the bread feeding. While I did, my master would thump, lightly pinch, and poke the outstretched left arm. The purpose of this training was to get the panda accustomed to this routine, which can then be used to easily take blood samples.

    From about 10:30 or 11:00 until about 2:00 was down time, with a special feeding again just after 2:00. The pandas were not always required to do the armrest routine and sometimes the special feedings were used to give vitamins discretely hidden in the loaf of bread or in the cutout core of an apple. Downtime from around 3:00 to 4:00.

    At 4:00, a second load of bamboo would be delivered to each panda’s outdoor enclosure after it was lured into the cage. Then outside again for the panda with another cage cleaning as needed. What surprised me was the amount of bamboo leaves that needed sweeping not only from the panda’s enclosure, but from all the paths and from everywhere the bamboo was carted.

    As you can see there was plenty of nonworking time to just walk around and enjoy the giant pandas and I took advantage of almost every minute of it. The adults were quite active and took more of an interest in the human observers than I would have thought. I was told that due to the lower quality of the bamboo, the pandas were actually less active than normal to conserve their energy. The babies were of course full of energy and playfulness. As for encountering other visitors, it was never crowded because the place is big. At times there were no visitors.

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    There was one hiking path for humans that went up into the mountains. I went for one invigorating hike but was hesitant to go too far since I was alone and could not communicate well.

    For a donation of 1000 yuan or $120 dollars (based on current exchange rates) you can spend 5 minutes in the nursery with the baby pandas. No travelers checks or credit cards are accepted. You may bring in another person to take pictures of you and the photographer does not have to pay. If any of the pandas are not in good health, this option is cancelled. During my stay it was not offered each day. I had my 5 minutes of excitement with the babies and two weeks later still have the bruises to prove it. They like to bite, not skin-breaking bites, just love nibbles. Well worth the black and blue marks.

    Twice I took the afternoon off to either just panda watch or head into the town of Wolong by taxi, about 8 miles away. I just notified my master (through the one bilingual master or a bilingual high school student) that I’d be gone and it was no problem. Wolong is a small traditional town with many sellers of local handicrafts, farms, and family restaurants. I wanted to eat in one of the local restaurants but was not sure how to make myself understood. So I took a picture of one of the ubiquitous cabbage fields on my digital camera, walked into a restaurant, and pointed to the camera’s display screen. The owner smiled in recognition and soon arrived with a plate of stir fried cabbage and rice. It was outstanding! I was less enthused with the unwrapped chop sticks that were handed to me from the refrigerator. But I have all my shots and fortunately there were no unpleasant repercussions.

    That Wolong dining experience was an interesting combination. In the restaurant was a TV with a Chinese game show that was of great interest to staff and patrons alike. Just outside the restaurant was a traditionally dressed, very elderly woman with a tightly bound black headdress smoking a traditional pipe-like cigarette. Across the street was a military barracks where soldiers in uniform were marching in cadence and shouting something in unison that was a bit discomforting. And from one of the barrack’s windows, belonging to a soldier that did not have to participate in the ongoing drill, wafted the sounds of Kenny G!

    My accommodation was the Panda Inn. I was pleased with it because of location, location, location. For someone spending a week sweeping panda poo, a little soiled carpeting or moldy smell is probably not going to be upsetting. That was the case for me.

    But as an honest assessment of Panda Inn, the carpet was dirty enough that my unshod foot never touched it. Fortunately that was easily accomplished because paper slippers were provided. The walls had cracked plaster and some unsightly stains and soiling. The bathroom had permanently dirty grout in every crevice. I never did get any hot water, although it was supposed to run 24 hours. However there was an electric water boiler-pitcher in the room that I used to heat up my water for bathing and hair washing. If I did not keep the windows open, it smelled moldy and unpleasant. The fact that my panda excrement-scented uniform hung every night in the room probably did not help with the unpleasant odor!

    But unlike the other several-star hotels I had the pleasure of staying in during portions of this trip, not one cockroach did I spy anywhere on or near the premises. There was only one tiny spider in a corner once. I have more bugs at home. The sheets were bright white and spotless and there was an electric blanket for the cool mountain air at night. The staff was extremely pleasant and helpful even if their English and my Mandarin did not allow for much interaction.

    Every meal I ate at the attached restaurant was excellent. I ordered something different each time and every entree was delicious and so plentiful I could not finish it. Breakfasts were odd from my western perspective, so each morning I ate the hot hardboiled egg, buns, and peanuts that were served. All meals were served at times that coincided well with the volunteering.

    Panda Inn takes only Chinese currency, no credit cards, or travelers checks. All in all, it is where I’d recommend staying for volunteer activities, despite some hygiene issues. It was so convenient being able to go back to the room in the middle of the day, take off the uniform, wash up, and relax. If someone just wanted to spend a day or two looking at pandas, there is another option in the town of Wolong—the very lovely Wolong Hotel.

    I can say “lovely” from personal experience. Due to a pleasant and unexpected encounter, I joined a delightful group for dinner one evening. The guide who brought me to Wolong was leading a group of parents and their daughters who had been adopted from China as infants. The giant pandas were on their itinerary. We all dined at the Wolong Hotel, where the group was staying. We had a variety of excellent dishes in an elegant setting, but I thought Panda Inn’s food was equal in quality. After dinner, there were no cabs to be found so I could not make my way back to the Panda Inn. I ended up spending a night at the Wolong Hotel in a beautiful, spotless room with a magnificent shower. There was an electric blanket here, too. No travelers checks are accepted at Wolong Hotel.

    At the end of the volunteering, I got a nice Wolong Panda Club folder with a personalized certificate of accomplishment, stationery, notepad, and pins.

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    In sum, here is what I learned about the Panda volunteering that might be helpful to future volunteers:

    -If you are at all prone to motion sickness, bring medication for the trip to and from Wolong.

    -Bring your own raingear and Wellington type boots. Even in the dry season there is lots of rain. Plus you need them for hosing down cells.

    -This link gives Wolong weather. June and early July is the rainiest time by far and nearly the hottest, but I found the weather to be fine. Only one afternoon of panda viewing was rained out and twice I had to work in the rain. Mostly it rained at night. Unlike many other parts of China that are unbearably hot in the summer, Wolong is at a high enough altitude so that it was warm but never too hot, and cool at night.

    -Bring a nail scrubber. I wished I had. At least I had plenty of hand sanitizer.

    -Make a time sheet of all times in 15-minute increments so your master can point to when you will be needed next.

    -BYO salt and pepper for the daily hot hardboiled egg for breakfast, if you like salt and pepper on your egg.

    -I was glad I had Aleve with me because the bamboo hauling and feces sweeping uses different muscles than what I am used to. Or maybe it is a sign of my own poor housekeeping skills—my cleaning muscles have atrophied.

    -The uniform had big enough pockets for a standard sized water bottle. It is good to bring one because you get thirsty doing manual labor in the sun.

    -I was not able to find bottled water in Wolong, but you can boil your own with the water boiler provided at Panda Inn.

    -I was glad I had stopped at the market on the way to Wolong for fruit to eat in the room. I was also glad I brought breakfast bars for days when a hardboiled egg and peanuts, yet again, did not seem appealing for breakfast.

    -The summer months are when American high school groups sometimes come in to volunteer. I missed a group by a couple of weeks. That fact, along with less desirable weather in the summer, points to spring or fall as ideal times. Also, I was told the spring bamboo is more substantial and I saw the difference in droppings between good bamboo (little straw-like packages) and poor bamboo (loose and runny). Finally, the giant pandas at the Chengdu Panda Station (4 hours down the mountain from Wolong) will likely be inactive and holed up in their air-conditioned cages during summer months.

    -Domestic Chinese flights must be confirmed 3-7 days in advance or the seat you paid for is given away. If you have limited Mandarin skills, getting a guide or agent to do this is helpful because it would be hard to get that accomplished from the Panda Inn, despite very helpful staff. I had my guide confirm.

    -When it is wet, which is often, the steep slopes of the enclosures and the stone walkways are very slippery, requiring baby steps.

    -While working you are not allowed to take pictures. I either left the camera behind, or I took a small digital that went around my neck inside my uniform. I did not photograph the pandas while we worked, but I did before and after my chores when there was a 15 or 20 minute break. Of course when you are not working, photography is fine. The last day I did bring the camera out for a few minutes during work and had another volunteer take a couple pictures of me and it was no problem. But there really is no opportunity to stop for pictures during work time.

    -You could have a good volunteer experience in 3 or 4 days. A week is not needed. I liked the week’s stay to maximize my time with the pandas and learn some of their personalities.

    -Several books are ideal for the evening, when there is nothing to do. There was a TV at Panda Inn but only Chinese stations. There was a BBC channel at the Wolong Hotel.

    -There is very little communicating with others if you do not speak Mandarin, whether while working or at Panda Inn. In my week’s stay, about half a dozen English speaking guests stayed for a night at Panda Inn, as far as I could tell.

    -Because of the reserve’s location, just off the road, you cannot walk around the area. Walking on the road is too dangerous. I had thought about trying to rent a bike and use it to go into the town of Wolong. With one lane, big trucks, and steep mountain slopes, that would have been a bad idea.

    -If you take a taxi into Wolong, don’t go too late in the day or there will be no available taxis to return to Panda Inn. That’s how I ended up spending one night at the Wolong Hotel in the town of Wolong.

    After I bid farewell to the pandas, I stayed one night in Chengdu. I visited the Chengdu Panda Station, similar to Wolong, but much hotter because it is in a valley. To avoid the extreme heat, all the giant pandas chose their air-conditioned cages—and I couldn’t blame them—so there was not much to see. However, the many wooded areas where the red pandas lived had quite a bit of activity. I saw several red pandas and took plenty of photos.

    The local markets within walking distance of Minshan Hotel in Chengdu were fascinating. Shannon took me to the tropical fish, pet bird, flower, vegetable, and fish/sea urchin markets on my last morning. I could have spent all day, but my flight home beckoned.

    I would love to read reports of those who volunteer at Wolong Panda Reserve in the future. Please feel free to email me about Wolong if you are considering this amazing experience with the Xiong Mau.


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    What an amazing experience, Lynn! Thanks for your great report and the wonderful pics. Loved the ones of the pandas interacting. But the prize winner - IMHO - was the panda chomping on the bamboo! Awesome.

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    Lynn,
    I was so thrilled to read about your encounter as well as viewing the fantastic photos. This is a MUST DO for me. Visiting them at the San Diego Zoo isn't enough for me. And your agent is in my backyard. Oh my, Zambia?...Pandas?...Zambia?...Pandas? Ok, I talked myself into it, BOTH!
    Thanks so much for sharing this marvelous experience.

    Carla

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    Great report and photos Lynn- thanks! I can imagine the joy you must have felt when you were tumbling with the "kids"! Your pictures are wonderful!

    I found it interesting that you met a group of parents and their daughters who had been adopted from China as infants. Would you mind expanding on that a little - approx age of the daughters, nationality of parents, did they speak Chinese etc? xie xie!

    Cyn

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    Cyn,

    Xie xie is one of the half dozen Chinese words I know. Another one of them is the word for beer and I don't even like beer.

    The group was made up of about 10
    parents (some mothers and fathers together and some mothers alone.) Among the parents were about 6 girls ages 8 to 12 who had been adopted by these parents from an orphange in China. The girls were adopted when they were between 7 months and 22 months old and brought to the US to New York, California, and Oregon.

    This was the first time back to China for the parents and girls since they left together from the orphange. Only one of the Chinese girls could speak any Mandarin because she was enrolled in a US immersion school. There also was one 14 year old biological daughter who was the sister of one of the adopted girls.

    Though I did not spend much time with them, all the girls seemed to be really good travelers who liked their meals and got along well. In fact one mother told me that her adopted Chinese only daughter was having such a good time with the group of girls that she asked if they could pick up a sister for her when they went to the orphanage.

    That was their next stop after the pandas--returning to the orphanage where the girls began their lives. I just casually was told about this upcoming stop as part of the overall itinerary. But even the mention of it from the parents made us all a little emotional. I cannot imagine how everyone must have felt when they all arrived at that orphanage.

    Apparently such trips for parents and adopted daughters are common and there is at least one company that specializes in them. The day this group was leaving China, another was coming in.

    My Chinese guide made an interesting comment to me in response to my observation that using umbrellas for the sun is such a good idea. It is standard practice in China, but I rarely see umbrellas for sun protection in the US, only for rain.

    My guide said that she felt that is why the skin of the adopted daughters was much darker than that of the native Chinese girls. She was right, the girls living in the US had dark tans.

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    Lynn:

    Wow - you're right - I can't imagine how emotional it must have been for them to go to the orphanage!

    When we were in China, the young people were so matter of fact and supportive of the one child policy, but they never discussed the other side of that policy. I wonder how many of the girls will try to find their birth mothers/families.

    Thanks for expanding on this for me, and again - sounds like a great trip!

    Cyn

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    Just amazing, Lynn. Funny, too. And of course the photos are fantastic. As someone on the Africa board said, "so cute they're unreal."

    Thanks so much for sharing all this.

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    This was a fantastic report. I'd read it last week, and neglected to comment on it. Even had to show my wife your pictures when she got home.

    I like your trip ideas. I seem to recall another that you had posted (I believe it was you anyway) on the Africa board about a chimpanzee rehab center. Obviously one I still remember.

    This one came to my mind again tonight because of a news item on the Wolong Reserve. Seems they just had a record size cub born today (the date on the site is tomorrow's, due to it being an Australian site). Thought you may have met Mom!

    Here's the story and a pic.

    http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,20063926-663,00.html

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    Atravelynn - What wonderful pictures and a great report!!

    Is it possible to tour Wolong Panda Reserve if you are not a volunteer? Also, do you have to be volunteer to have make reservations for the private panda time with the cubs?

    Thanks, Heather

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    Wow! Fantastic pictures, atravelynn. I had no idea anything like this was possible; hmmm......I did a google search and found a number of "panda tour" companies. Would you recommend mongolglobal tours or any other companies?

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    Lynn, that sounds like an amazing trip. I'm going to look into that because Chengdu will be on my route when I visit Tibet (hopefully in next couple of years), and I'd like to spend some time at Wolong (a week may be a bit much for me, but I'd be happy to volunteer for a day or so).

    Thanks, Michael

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    Sorry I have not checked this post in a very long time. I rarely stray from the Africa board.

    Clifton, such a memory! That was me in Ngamba, the chimp sanctuary. I did not meet the mom of the giant panda baby but twins were just born to Youyou and I did meet her. Thanks for the link!

    I would recommend Mongol Global for the pandas. Everything worked perfectly.

    Thit cho, You can volunteer for a shorter time.

    HLester3, For $125 (or the equivalent in yuan) in Aug of 2006, you too could get 5 minutes with the baby pandas. You could also take someone with you to take pictures and this photographer was not charged, but they could not touch the pandas. The babies do not receive guests every day. It depends on their health. If they are sniffling, then no guests. I saw that happen while I was there. One day lots of visits, the next day, not even one visit was allowed.

    Thanks for your interest.

    As for just visiting the pandas, anyone is welcome from 8 to 5 daily. I do not recall the cost of admission, but it was not that much.

    For anyone who just wants to see pandas, one full day is plenty.

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