Did you know you can become a volunteer at a Panda Reserve?
To be a volunteer at the Bifengxia Panda Reserve in Ya’an, visitors are allowed to sign up on the Panda International website on their own. We included this part of the trip in our tour package. We had a 2 day 1 night stint including a stay at the Bifengxia Xiaoxitian Hostel located right next to the Reserve.
We checked into the hostel upon arrival and was horrified to find the conditions of the hostel to be as bad, if not worse, than what had been described on the internet. The room was basic and incredibly damp (because of the high altitude) but that’s all still acceptable. What was the deal-breaker – the horrible smelling toilets!!! All our rooms have attached bathroom and most of them stink, REALLY BAD!
After leaving our luggage in the rooms, we proceeded to the Panda Reserve.
One of the caretakers then issued the volunteer overalls and our volunteer passes.
It was a pity that our tour guide didn’t really know what was going to happen for the rest of the day and we spent the afternoon roaming around the Reserve like a headless chicken (i.e. wasting our time) but we did see some baby and young pandas in their respective enclosures.
After getting through the night in the almost unbearably bad smelling room, we headed out early back to the Reserve the next morning. I was definitely ready and excited to be a volunteer at the Panda reserve.
We were driven to one of the panda enclosures that housed the pregnant or mother pandas. The caretakers split us into groups of 4, each led by a caretaker who was in charge of a few pandas. The caretaker’s instructions were short and precise – 2 to each enclosure, take the broom, clean the enclosures then wash and scrub. So we did what we were told. I was lucky (or unlucky depending on how you want to see it) that there was a pile of panda poop in “my enclosure” to be scooped. Well, how many people get the opportunity to do that??!! 🙂
A a volunteer at a panda reserve, the job scope would also include sweeping the corridor which was littered with a lot of bamboo and bamboo leaves. We never had so much fun sweeping floor in our lives!
We had some free time to roam around after all the hard work so we checked out the pandas. Those with babies inside the same enclosures were sensitive and protective so we had to contain our excitement and keep our voices down.
Most of the other pandas were feeding (read: stuffing!) themselves with bamboo and bamboo leaves. It was really adorable!
The bamboo and bamboo leaves provided to these pandas were fresh and of better quality than some other panda reserves in the country. These animals have a lot of space to move around, always free to go in and out of their enclosures and the “parks” designed specially for them. I think they were treated like kings and queens here.
As volunteers, we also had the opportunity to feed the pandas, by hand no less! Apparently other than bamboos, the pandas were fed with carrots, apples, panda bread and nutritional biscuits. The biscuits looked like a very dense cake made of special ingredients in order to supplement their otherwise deficient vitamins from just eating bamboo.
It was an amazing experience to be able to put food into the panda’s mouth and then see her “take over” feeding herself. It was fun!
Sitting NEXT to a Panda!
Beside signing up as a volunteers, the Panda Reserve allow visitors to sit and/or play with the pandas after paying a fee. My travelling mate Jackie decided to do it. I was in a dilemma because the fee was RMB 1,500 (about S$300)! After some consideration, I decided to join her. I didn’t want to have any regrets in my life. Who knows when will I ever get the chance to do it again, right?
Jackie and I were led to a shed-like area and were instructed to put on the protective clothing provided. We put on the gloves and covers for the shoes before being introduced to Jiajia the giant panda. Once we got through the gate, we saw Jiajia sitting on the pavement with carrots in his hands (I’m assuming it’s a boy) munching away! First Jackie was ushered to sit beside Jiajia and all the cameras and iPhone just started clicking away. Jiajia wasn’t too bothered about the human being next to him, he was more interested in getting more food from the caretakers.
When it was my turn, I sat down beside Jiajia and very lightly put my hands around him, turned to look at him every now and then before getting back to the cameras. I was actually a little bit nervous because you really don’t know what these wild animals can do.
After what seemed like just under 30 seconds, the photo-taking session ended and we were again ushered back out. Everything went past very hurriedly. We were later told that because carrot is not the best food for pandas’ digestive system, they tried to limit the amount of time the pandas spend with tourists / visitors in order to avoid giving too much snacks as a way of distracting them.
It was a really amazing experience to be sitting beside a real panda, touching it and even smelling it! From this invaluable (and expensive) experience, I learnt a few trivia facts:
1) Pandas smell quite bad because they don’t bath! The natural dirt on their fur is good protection against parasites.
2) Even though panda fur looked soft and fluffy, they are actually rough, like brushes!
For our efforts as volunteers, we were presented with a certificate and a pin each.
If you are interested to become a volunteer at a Panda Reserve, try getting in touch with the Panda International organisation. However, due to a recent epidemic, which already killed a few pandas, the Volunteer Programme has been suspended (until further notice?).
Also if you wish to take pictures with baby pandas as opposed to an adolescent (Jiajia was a 2 year old), do note that the price quoted to us was double! Check and ask before you pay. (Prices valid as at October 2014)