CHENGDU, China — High in the mountains of western China, on steep, almost inaccessible terrain, the last giant pandas roam dense forests of bamboo, conifer and birch. Enigmatic creatures seldom seen by humans, they survive in several reserves in small, isolated groupings.
Recently opened to the public, the Wolong Natural Reserve here in Sichuan Province, 200 miles from the border of Tibet, is the largest of these areas. Wolong and a few other refuges are the last stand not only for the giant panda but for other rare species such as the golden monkey, the tragopan pheasant and the giant panda's small raccoon-like cousin, the red panda.
Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, is the jumping-off place for panda country, also for travelers heading to Tibet. About 1,000 miles inland from Shanghai and a little more than 900 miles from Beijing, this prosperous city lies at the western edge of China's breadbasket. Teddy Roosevelt, son of President Theodore Roosevelt, came through Chengdu on a hunting expedition with his brother Kermit in 1928 and shot a panda. Agreeing to fire simultaneously, the two share the dubious honor of being the first white men to kill a giant panda.
From Chengdu the road to Wolong leads west through intensely cultivated fields where farmers winnow their rice on the surface of the asphalt roads. Occasionally one sees a neglected pagoda; a tree sprouts from the roof of one.
Beyond the rural town of Guanzian one crosses the path of the Long March, the strategic retreat of the Red Army before the forces of Chiang Kai-shek in 1935. At Luding, a bit south of the road to Wolong, you can still see the historic chain-link bridge dating from 1701, now reinforced with cables, where Mao Tse-tung, after a small but important victory, took his troops across the Dadu River.
The Mujiangpin tunnel at 3,000 feet above sea level marks the entrance to the Wolong Natural Reserve. Hewn from rock, it is a long, high tunnel with only occasional concrete walls and buttresses. Moisture drips the length of its dimly lit interior.
Beyond the tunnel the road follows the Zheng and Pitiao rivers, which at this altitude rush in torrents of white water. The road gradually worsens and vehicles are forced to the edge of sheer drop-offs to circumvent stones and landslides from the cliffs. On either side the Sichuan Mountains rise into the bright mist and high waterfalls plummet to the river. On clear days one can see the Four Maidens peak at the western end of the reserve.
About half of Wolong's 800 square miles are above the timberline and are not considered suitable habitat for pandas. The lower altitudes are occupied by the farms of 4,000 Qiang. Broad-faced and swarthy, they resemble American Indians except for their distinctly Oriental eyes. As an officially recognized minority they are not subject to the one-child-per-family rule current in the rest of China, and so the population within the reserve continues to rise.
Reserve headquarters is in the village of Sauwan about an hour's drive from the tunnel. A somber two-story hotel that once housed loggers accommodates naturalists and visitors. The immaculate rooms have high ceilings, a spittoon outside each door and a hot plate in the middle of the floor to take the chill off cold early mornings.
There are enameled washbasins and, on certain nights, there is hot water in the bathrooms down the hall, though bathing usually means taking up buckets of hot water from the heater downstairs.
Wolong's famous panda breeding compound is nearby. The one-story structures, dubbed "pandaminiums," are on the Pitiao flood plain beneath two steep mountains. Reached by a bridge, the gateway is carpeted with straw mats soaked in disinfectant, a precaution against rabies that might be brought in on people's shoes.
The pens have both indoor and outdoor areas, and there is also a large tract of enclosed habitat nearby.
Pandas Seem Tame
Accustomed to visitors, the pandas seem almost tame. One of the breeding males, Quan Quan, was found in the wild unconscious from a head injury and taken to Wolong to be nursed back to health. Last year he mated with one of the resident females, and the reserve is celebrating the birth of its first cub to survive, Lan Tian, which means blue skies.
Even trained naturalists seldom see pandas in the wild. George Schaller, a panda authority affiliated with Wildlife Conservation International at the Bronx Zoo in New York City, was in Wolong two months before he glimpsed his quarry. Thus forewarned, it was the habitat that our group came to see.
There are two camps in the reserve to which the industrious visitor might climb. One is the Wu Yi camp, known to many from the 1983 National Geographic TV special "Save the Panda" (available in videocassette). It can be visited only by permission. We chose the Ying Ziong Gou camp in an adjacent valley, which required a less strenuous climb. Now abandoned, it was the site of early panda rescue efforts.