The question that I get asked the most when telling people that I’m interning at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is how it relates to social work. I’ve been asked question like, “Do you have to shovel panda poop?” or “Do you get to play with the baby pandas?” In all honesty, when I first got here, I was hoping to have the chance to hold a baby panda and was disappointed to find out that pictures with baby pandas are no longer allowed. However, when I learned the reason as to why it is now outlawed in China (or it is supposed to be), I began to realize the detrimental effects these types of tourist attractions have on animals such as giant pandas. The research base initially stopped allowing tourists to take pictures with the baby pandas due to the outbreak of distemper and the unfortunate deaths of
four giant pandas in China. Although no pandas died in Chengdu, many who work at this research base were happy to finally have an excuse to end this tourist activity. Despite their previous efforts to skyrocket the price to take a picture with a panda, tourists still lined up every day. Allowing tourists to take pictures with the baby pandas meant that the babies must be taken away from their mothers when they are very young. Not only is this separation procedure cruel to the mother and baby, it disrupts the baby panda’s natural development. Furthermore, the baby pandas were forced to be held by strangers one after another for hours on end, creating even more stress and anxiety for the panda. Although everyone wants to save the giant pandas, very few realize what it means to actually do what is best for them.
Although I could watch the adorable giant pandas and red pandas eat bamboo all day, my internship is aimed towards the advocacy of these amazing creatures. I can give anyone facts about the giant pandas, for example, a baby weighs around 100 grams–nearly 1/900 of the mother’s weight when born or that giant pandas spend 55% of their day eating bamboo (which makes up 99% of their diet) and 45% sleeping. However, my internship here at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding isn’t just to
educate visitors on facts about giant pandas and red pandas, it is to help spread the awareness of the environmental and conservational issues facing China and the world. Many people have the common misconception that there are so few giant pandas left because they are not good at breeding. However, the real reason for the dwindling amount giant pandas is due to the depletion of their natural habitat. Due to overpopulation of humans and the pollution of the environment, the widespread area in Asia where giant pandas originally lived has shrunken to just a few small dots on the map. Giant pandas are not the only animals that have suffered from this. The red pandas, tigers, elephants, leopards, golden cats, golden takins, wolves, and golden throated martins are just a few species that have been affected by the environmental deficits. It is hard to say how many of these animals actually still exist in the wild.
It seems that the education piece of conservation is one of the hardest tasks of environmental advocacy. While many visitors at the research base come to look at the giant pandas, now a national symbol for China, most people do not want to hear the depressing facts about how humans are the reason the giant pandas in the wild are quickly going extinct. Did you know that we are now in the sixth extinction which is completely caused by humans? The last major extinction was during the Ice Age. It’s scary to think that humanity could be next on the list of extinct animals. This internship has really made me start to think about our future and what we need to do to protect it. I have started to encounter the frustration that I’m sure many conservationists have also experienced. When visitors at the Research Base ask us what we are doing there, I try to explain the One Health Initiative and the importance of the relationships between humans, animals, and the environment.
However, not a single person so far has asked any questions or shown any interest in what that means. I even had a man today ask me to tell him what One Health means in “just once sentence.” I told him in two sentences and then he walked away, uninterested in anything else about the topic. I know that I have a lot to work on myself in terms of changing everyday habits that will be less harmful to the environment such as reducing my waste and consuming less meat and dairy products (working my way from little to zero for the future), but I’m trying! I think talking with other people and raising awareness of these issues is something everyone can do. A little knowledge can go a long way!