Is the Chengdu Panda Base Ethical?

Posted by on Aug 10, 2016 in Asia, China | 27 Comments

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As soon as I arrived in Chengdu, my line of vision was somewhat invaded by… pandas.

Bears don’t actually roam the city, but the streets are bursting with shops selling panda souvenirs, there are posters of pandas over buildings and all public transport has pandas painted on it….

Once you enter Chengdu, you’ve basically entered panda-land.

The panda Breeding and Research Centre is actually a few miles out of the city, reachable by bus. The centre is dedicated to the protection of the endangered panda, with the aim of preserving the species from extinction. The Breeding and Research centre do this by rearing and raising pandas and releasing them into the wild when they are ready to fend for themselves.

I’m not into animal tourism, and am strongly against keeping animals in captivity against their own will. There’s so many places where animals are mistreated on different levels around the world; from riding elephants in Thailand to swimming with dolphins in Mexico. Even seeing penguins at the London Zoo raises some ethical issues. But the Chengdu panda centre is not a zoo and, although it draws in huge crowds, is not merely a tourist attraction. The centre is really dedicated to the preservation of the panda, through research and breeding.

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How endangered are pandas?

The Chinese love their pandas and rightly so. They are their national treasure, an animal that only live in China … but they may soon cease to exist. It is believed that there are only 2,000 pandas in the world, all of which call the Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces home. Over 70% are believed to live in the Sichuan Province, where Chengdu is located. So this area is very much one of the only places where pandas live, and it’s highly unlikely (and pretty dangerous) that you’ll find one in the wild.

Due to the rapid industrialisation and deforestation of China, pandas are losing their natural habitat. Pandas are solitary and unsociable animals- one panda likes to have 6km of square space around them at any one time (which takes ‘alone time’ to a whole new level). Therefore, as the population of China rises, it becomes harder and harder for pandas to find the room they need to survive.

What is the Chengdu Panda Centre?

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The research base houses and cares for Giant Pandas and Red Pandas and aims to “be a world-class research facility, conservation education center, and international educational tourism destination”. (Panda.org). The centre wishes to promote awareness about the importance of preserving the panda, while creating the opportunity for more pandas to be bred and raised and ultimately released back into the wild. It is one of the only places in China where you are guaranteed to spot one of the black and white bears, so it naturally brings in huge amounts of tourists.

They’ve had mixed success with releasing the pandas back into the wild – the first died ten months later, as it was unable to fend for itself, but subsequent pandas have survived.

Should the Pandas be Here?

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I do think that the project intends to do good work. They treat the pandas well, they are sensitive to their specific requirements and they are passionate about educating others in the need for the preservation of the species.

But I did start to wonder is the Chengdu Panda Base ethical? As I walked round. Something just didn’t sit right with me.

The Chengdu Panda Base – Unethical?

Is the Chengdu Panda Base unethical? Here’s some of the thoughts I had while walking around the centre and researching afterwards.

Pandas Don’t Have Enough Space

As I previously mentioned, pandas are solitary creatures. They love (and need) their own space – preferably up to 6km. That’s a lot of space, and there’s no way they are going to get that in the Chengdu Panda Base. While this amount of space is quite demanding in modern day China (and is a major factor to why they’re endangered), their tiny enclosures in the centre made me feel quite uneasy – especially when I saw pandas who seemed quite anxious and stressed. It’s never a good sign when animals have repetitive behaviour or are sat in a corner of their enclosure; and with thousands of tourists peering in per day, I don’t blame them.

You Can Get Your Picture Taken With a Panda

One thing that really shocked me was that you can get your picture taken with a panda. Any wild animal doesn’t really want their photo taken with you, especially not pandas who like to have 6km of space around them. It actually really surprised me that an otherwise sensitive organization offered this, and it was actually this that has spurred me to do more research about whether the centre is ethical.

It is worth noting that, while I was there, the picture-taking service wasn’t permitted. But I was advised that this was just temporary because of a disease that was currently being passed between human and panda, and there was no indication that it was permanently discontinued.

The Pandas Aren’t in their Natural Habitat

There’s a strong and valid argument that keeping any animal in captivity against their own wishes is cruel and does not consider their best interests.  Although the Sichuan province is one of the areas where pandas have been found in the wild, there are signs up stating that the pandas don’t like heat of over 20 degrees and ‘prefer to stay inside where there is AC’. It was always way over 20 degrees during my time in Chengdu, and I think that the pandas would have preferred to turn the AC off and migrate up the nearby mountains.

Can pandas raised in captivity be released into the wild?

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As I have previously mentioned, there’s also a few issues with releasing the pandas back into the wild. Once a panda has got used to human interaction, it will struggle without (as the case for many wild animals). This has been proven as the first captive-bred panda, Xiang Xiang, was found dead ten months after his release. Subsequently-released pandas are still alive, apart from one named Xue Xue who lacked the necessary skills to survive in the wild and as a result died.

It can be argued that this is both a success and a failure – any animal dying could imply that the system is not working, whereas it could be argued that the surviving pandas prove that it is a success.

 

Chengdu Panda Base – Ethical?

It’s not all bad news – there were also reasons why the Chengdu Panda Base can be considered an ethical project. Here’s how:

It is important to consider the centre as a Chinese project

Even if we might disagree with some of the ways that the panda research and breeding is carried out, it is important to remember that in terms of animal rights, this is a big step for China. Animal culture in China is different, and we must appreciate that something is being done for the preservation of the panda. It’s also vital to remember that the Chinese know the pandas best – they only live there after all – so this might be what really is best for the panda.

It is a Not-For-Profit Organisation

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It’s not for profit – there’s some (click-baity) articles on the internet claiming that these ‘cubs are torn from their mothers and raised for profit’. The cubs are separated from their mothers, but this always happens as they get older in the wild as well – if a mother panda has twins she immediately only takes one, and at the centre they take turns putting each twin with the mother while looking after the other to give them both a chance of survival. However, the organization is certainly not just a money-maker. I do believe that the Chengdu Panda Base genuinely wants to protect their country’s native animal.

The care and setting is authentic

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The staff at the panda base would argue that they provide the pandas with authentic care and affection. They dress as pandas to feed them, they face the pandas with ‘predators’ to train them how to react should they see one in the wild, and they offer forests that imitate their natural habitat. However, the panda costumes are a bit controversial (pandas use their senses of smell and hearing more than sight) and I don’t think Chengdu in the summer is the panda’s natural habitat, the efforts made here to protect the panda are noticeable.

The whole idea behind protecting the panda is ethical

The Chinese don’t want to see their pandas die. They’re in a catch 22 really; larger cities and more resources are needed to accommodate and sustain their huge population, but they don’t want to invade any more into their natural habitat. It’s not just China who are having this issue; deforestation around the globe is seeing many animals lose their natural habitat. But it’s trickiest for China, as their national animal who they love and cherish is at stake. Chengdu panda centre offers a compromise to this, as they try and research the species more and breed them with the hope that they will be able to survive in the wild. Without centres like this, pandas could be extinct very soon.

So how ethical is the Chengdu Panda Base?

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The issue boils down to whether it is worth breeding pandas in this way, to prolong their life expectancy as a species, or should panda world just admit defeat and leave them to their own devices? In all honesty, I’m not sure which is the correct answer, and I can see good arguments for both sides. I don’t believe in the Daily Mail articles shaming ‘Panda Factories’ or those who claim that the research is going to completely revitalise panda-hood.

The two things that bugged me most about the panda centre was the enclosed areas, and the fact that you can get your picture taken with a panda. I’d beg the panda centre to lose the photo opportunity and it would be ideal to have roomier enclosures for the pandas, which would give less of a zoo-like atmosphere to the centre and hopefully provide a less stressful experience for the pandas. But I do appreciate that the research does need to be funded, and people are less likely to pay when they have less of a chance of actually seeing the panda. It’s a double edged sword!

A Guardian article that I read while researching the panda centre stated this “How do you measure “success” in protecting a species? I say by the conservation and restoration of both the animal and its habitat.” The habitat of the panda is fast disappearing, due to the boom in population of China, which causes more of a need for forest wood and land. In an ideal world, this would be preserved, and it would be amazing if no more of the globe’s natural landscape was destroyed. But the bottom line is: there’s so many people who need resources and places to live. This has happened all over the world as various countries have developed, and it’s unfortunate for China that their development is leading to the endangerment of their national animal.

It’s great to see that China are doing something about this endangerment. I’m just not sure if it’s the right thing.

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Should you visit the panda centre?

I would really encourage any readers who are going to Chengdu to take a trip to the Panda Centre to make up their minds for themselves on whether it is ethical and if it should be a continued enterprise. As I’ve mentioned, the jury’s still out for me. I’d love to know what some other travellers think!

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Some Practical Information for Visiting the Panda Centre

The panda centre is 10km away from the city centre, and it can be reached by bus; first take a bus to the Zoo Bus Stop (normally bus 9) and then a bus 87 or 198 to the Panda Base Bus Stop. Admission costs 58 yuan/ £6.69/ $8.74. You will need 3-4 hours to visit the whole park – maybe longer in peak times, as it gets very crowded! Food is not widely available within the park and is very expensive, so best to take some lunch.

Have you been to the Chengdu Panda Base? Did you think it was ethical or unethical? Let me know in the comments!

If you enjoyed this article, please share it or follow me on Facebook!

Resources
China Releases its Fifth Captive Bred Giant Panda into the Wild

Inside the Giant Panda Research Centre: In Pictures

Hi Cutie! Meeting Baby Pandas in China

Panda Breeding Success Ignores their Disappearing Habitat

Chengdu Panda Base Official Website

Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

Travel China Guide – Chengu Panda Base

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27 Comments

  1. Emily - Unpaved Travel
    August 10, 2016

    This is a really great article Claire, thanks for sharing! You’ve definitely presented a very balanced argument here. I err on the side of “yes – it’s the right thing to do”. If humans have contributed to the decline of a species then we should definitely do everything possible to fix it. I agree with you though, there are definitely other measures that could be investigated – maybe better protecting their natural environment?

    Hmm – lots of food for thought 🙂

  2. Claire
    August 10, 2016

    Hey Emily, thanks for your comment! Yes, that’s a very valid point, I definitely agree that we should be doing something, but yeah maybe something different… I feel like there’s no right answer really!

  3. Helen
    August 12, 2016

    I never got to visit Chengdu or visit the panda’s while I was in China, which was a shame. This was really interesting to read though, and as I travel more, I think more and more about the ethical nature of places keeping animals.

    Thanks for sharing Claire!

  4. Claire
    August 12, 2016

    Hey Helen, thanks for your comment! It’s definitely worth seeing to see if you think it’s an ethical project, but I’m just a bit unsure about it all! Happy travelling!

  5. Becky
    August 13, 2016

    Love that you considered both sides of the story without jumping to conclusions. I think places like this are important for education and preservation, as long as they’re done well. This one seems like it’s at least on the right track and just has a few things to tighten up.
    Becky recently posted…Planning a Perfect Day in ChincoteagueMy Profile

  6. Claire
    August 13, 2016

    Yes, very true! I’d feel a lot better about the project if a few things were done differently… thanks for your comment!

  7. Emily kydd
    August 13, 2016

    What a tough dilemma, damned if you do damned if you don’t kind of situation. Unfortunately it seems like pandas are one of the many victims to unrestrained urban sprawl, pollution, and the overuse of this Earth by humans. One can hope that there is a ceiling to this madness and centres like this are buying time for the species! Thanks for this piece, very interesting.

  8. Claire
    August 13, 2016

    Definitely! It’s so sad that pandas have become one of the victims, but lets hope that the centre is helping rather than hindering it! Thanks for your comment!

  9. rik aka tapirtales.com
    August 13, 2016

    Mixed feelings about this whole Panda business. The National Zoo in Kuala Lumpur spent millions to build a fancy, air conditioned pavilion for 2 Pandas. While we have our own black & white, endangered species. The Malaysian Tapir. But I guess tapirs aren’t selling tickets and merchandise.
    rik
    rik aka tapirtales.com recently posted…Day 6 to Logrono – Now we’re talkingMy Profile

  10. Llamateurs
    August 13, 2016

    Oh, you did a huge research I can tell. That article really made me think. We’ve never visited China so obviously didn’t see panda anywhere else than in zoos when we were kids. I almost never take any side on the discussions, not because I don’t have my own opinion. Only because the more you read, talk and discuss the matters the more you learn and start questioning your own opinion which you made before… There is no obvious answer of course. Probably some pandas feel good there, some not. It is hard to say something generally. Like all species every single animal is a different character… Maybe I am going to deep now 🙂 So is Chengdu ethical? I… I don’t know. Probably we’ve never answer that question because we can only question it between us – people. We should ask pandas how they feel 🙂 And yes, that was what your article reminded me while mentioning about cutting trees. Everything is around us. I feel ebmarassed and amazed at the same time that I represent this species. But I wouldn’t mind if world would be ruled by dogs, pandas…or trees one day. Just for a change.
    Llamateurs recently posted…How to start travelling differently PART 2My Profile

  11. Claire
    August 13, 2016

    Oh wow really I didn’t know that, that’s really sad for the Tapirs! Yes as I’m sure you can tell I have very mixed feelings too. I’m not even sure if they’ll want to be in a fancy pavilion? Who knows eh? Thanks for your comment!

  12. Claire
    August 13, 2016

    Thanks so much for your comment! Yeah I agree with that, there’s valid points on both sides of the argument. I understand them both but I can’t help but question it! Yeah that’s very true, it might be different compared on different animal. It did make me uncomfortable seeing some of them were quite stressed though! Yes I know what you mean, us humans have destroyed a lot of the earth and it’s a bit worrying how far it might go! Hmmm.. lots of food for thought!

  13. Eloise
    August 14, 2016

    Great article. Like you, I don’t like seeing wild animals in captivity. Especially when it’s only for humans’ pleasure. However, I sometimes wonder if the sacrifice of some in this situation could serve the entire species. I mean, I still feel sad for these individuals, but if it can protect more… it may be worth it. For example, I know a place where you could take photos with baby animals (there was a wombat, a koala, an alligator and a Tasmanian devil), and they would use 100% of the money donated for the photos to pursue research on the disease killing the endangered Tasmanian devils. Another example could be the aquariums: my heart is broken when I see marine animals with no space (I am a diver and I’m used to seeing them in the wild), but I feel a lot better when the aquarium has a focus on educating visitors about how to protect the species, how they can act at home to protect the environment, why they should stop using so much plastic, etc.
    Eloise recently posted…6 Tips to Deal with the Police in Mexico When They Want a BribeMy Profile

  14. Claire
    August 14, 2016

    Thanks so much for your comment Eloise! So good to hear other people’s opinions on this. That’s a very valid point, and again it’s a very difficult question to answer. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer to it actually, as I can see points for both sides!
    It does aim to educate visitors about the endangerment of the panda, so I guess that’s a good point. It’s very difficult to judge the situation! Thanks again for commenting, great to hear from you.

  15. Stephanie
    August 14, 2016

    I agree 100% about animal tourism, or keeping animals in captivity for the entertainment of humans in general! I don’t even like zoos. Even if the animals are treated kindly, they’re not meant to be locked away. And they’re not definitely not meant to be paraded around so you can take pictures with!
    Stephanie recently posted…How to Sell Your Adult Gap Year to Everyone ElseMy Profile

  16. Travelgretl
    August 14, 2016

    Panda costumes, really…?!?! ?? As I told you on FB – I love how you carefully talk about the situation, trying to look at it from every angle. After reading it I was even happier we didn’t go on our last Chengdu visit a few weeks ago!

  17. Norbert Micus
    August 15, 2016

    So cute! Usually I’m not a big fan finding all these animals cute but these are a lot an you took nice pics! And you are right to wright sth. about the problems. I’m Greenpeace member since 30 jears and I like this I know we all should care more about our nice planet.

  18. Elisa
    August 15, 2016

    Interesting thoughts. I was there and I think what they do is OK, it is so difficult their reproduction and survival . . .

  19. Emma Hart | Paper Planes and Caramel Waffles
    August 16, 2016

    What a fascinating article Claire. I would say for this one that yes, I think it is the right thing to do. Although things can always be improved, and hopefully those things will be improved in time, places like this raise awareness about a species in decline. And also how humans contribute to this decline. Although I’m not a massive fan of zoos either and the way most of the animals are kept in unnatural environments, they do educate people about animals and hopefully this contributes in some way to the conservation of certain species.
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  20. Claire
    August 17, 2016

    Yeah this is the main issue that I had with the panda centre, I found it so surprising that a place dedicated to protecting the panda offered a photo taking opportunity! I hate zoos too!

  21. Claire
    August 17, 2016

    I know! Apparently pandas are much more sensitive to smell anyway so it’s a bit pointless. Thanks for your comment

  22. Claire
    August 17, 2016

    Thanks! Haha me too, these guys are pretty cool though!Yeah, maybe it’s the root of the problem that needs to be sorted, not the problem when it arises?!

  23. Claire
    August 17, 2016

    Yeah, it’s definitely a tough one to answer!

  24. Claire
    August 17, 2016

    Thanks Emma! Yeah if the conditions were a bit better I’d feel a lot more assured about it. It would be great if it showed more about why the pandas are endangered – I had to find it all out through my own research! As long as we all keep on learning. Thanks for the comment!

  25. Annika
    August 17, 2016

    I love Panda! I literally planning to apply as Panda nanny.

  26. Travelling Tom
    August 18, 2016

    Great article Claire. As long as the number of pandas keeps steadily rising and they are eventually released back into the wild, it’s all good with me!
    Travelling Tom recently posted…Ultimate Adelaide to Melbourne Road Trip GuideMy Profile

  27. Diane Franks
    April 11, 2017

    How can it be ethical when they take the babies away from their mothers simply so that the mothers can be raped and made pregnant again. Yes raped .. she has NO choice in it. Also the males … to get the sperm they have an electric prod put up their anus which then makes them ejaculate. ETHICAL … NO WAY

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