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