TRAVEL: A trek into the mountains of China in search of wild pandas

PANDA ENCOUNTERS: STALKING AN ENDANGERED ICON


It's easy to spy the captive pandas at Chinese zoos, like Daping Yu Scenic Spot, but much more difficult to find a wild panda. (Cinda Chavich photos)

By CINDA CHAVICH


(SHAANXI PROVINCE, CHINA) — The piercing scream is sudden and unexpected, stopping us dead on the muddy trail.

An ugly confrontation is in progress nearby, but only the gnashing and growling makes it beyond the impenetrable wall of bamboo before us. Moments later, the prize we’ve been seeking for days stumbles out of the forest, in plain sight. It’s dirty and bloodstained, fresh from a brutal mating battle, but it’s the real deal — a rare Giant Panda.

This male giant panda — battered and bleeding after a territorial battle — was the only one we encountered, at least in relatively close proximity, in China's Qin Ling Mountains.

We’ve come to the wilds of central China – the Foping Nature Reserve, high in the Qin Ling Mountains in Shaanxi province – for this moment, to photograph China’s wild Giant Pandas in their natural habitat. Tom Rivest, a bear-obsessed Canadian expert who helps tourists get up close to grizzlies at his Great Bear Nature Lodge on B.C.’s west coast, is our guide.


Canadian grizzly bear guide and naturalist Tom Rivest led our Chinese panda expedition

He’s organized this Chinese bear-watching expedition, paid the many government fees, and jumped through the bureaucratic hoops, to get our small group of eight eager wildlife watchers into this restricted area, where only a handful of tourists are allowed to tread each year. Zoe Zuo of Wild Giant Panda, the Chinese NGO devoted to preserving panda habitat has helped, too, securing the permissions, guides and trackers we need for our 10-day stay at the isolated Sanguanmiao Research Station, where the world’s researchers come to study wild pandas.

Only a handful of tourists are given permission to visit the Sanguanmiao Research Station each year.

It’s estimated that 30 pandas live in the immediate area but despite our local trackers’ best efforts, and the hefty $5,000 price tag for this trip, there is no guarantee we will actually encounter these shy and elusive creatures.

Still, it’s quite the adventure trying, an indelible experience when compared with my previous encounters with captive pandas in China — the ubiquitous bus tours to Chinese zoos and wildlife parks where adorable, hand-raised pandas entertain crowds, munching bamboo or playing like fuzzy toddlers on jungle gyms.

Pandas are at the top of the A-list when it comes to endangered species, the loveable face of international wildlife conservation.

But despite China’s decades of breeding, and ongoing efforts by international groups like the World Wildlife Fund (which uses the panda as its logo), none of these cuddly-looking vegetarians have yet been successfully reintroduced into the wild.

Many, reared in incubators at Chengdu’s Panda Breeding and Research Centre, are destined for China’s “panda diplomacy” program — rented to zoos in China-friendly countries like Canada for a cool $1 million annual fee apiece. These captive pandas are the kind Canadians will see over the next 10 years, while four-legged diplomats Er Shun and Da Mao are on loan to the Toronto and Calgary zoos.


WHERE WILD PANDAS STILL ROAM

Pandas once roamed across China, an indigenous Asian bear now found in just a few isolated pockets in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces.

Sanguanmiao may be the best place to spot one — with two pandas per square kilometre, it has the highest measured density of wild Giant Pandas in the world. But it’s not easy to make the trip into this remote research reserve, or find bears in this rugged terrain once we’re here.

Our journey begins with flights to Bejing, then on to Xi’an, the ancient city at the end of the Silk Road, where the famed Terracotta Warriors have been exhumed. Like much of China, the collision between the ancient and the uber-modern world is palpable here — farmers tilling the fields with oxen while the towers of a technology park sprout around them.

It’s a five-hour bus ride from Xi’an up into the Qin Ling mountains. The road ends at the edge of the nature reserve, then it's a eight-kilometre hike into the research station, a remote area where just a few villagers still eke out an existence growing vegetables and raising honey bees. They will be our mountain guides, trackers and cooks at this rustic station and, when we arrive at the trailhead, they are waiting with sturdy pack ponies, ready to transport our gear.


The Chinese government has built a kind of hostel here for panda tourists, but the river that was expected to provide hydro-electric power, like many in China, has dried to a trickle.



So conditions for our stay are more rustic than advertised — no heating, lighting or functional bathrooms and only sporadic power, from a wood-fired generator, for charging camera batteries before retiring to a chilly bed.


Winter is the best time to spot pandas in the wild and we are traveling in February.

With snow on the ground some days, it’s a challenge. But we take what comes, strapping on our hiking boots and gators and heading out early each morning, fortified with thin rice porridge and carrying hard-boiled eggs and apples in our backpacks.


The terrain is beautiful though sometimes treacherous. Trails up through the beehive mountains are steep and, with temperatures hovering around zero degrees Celsius, the ground is muddy and slick beneath the thick layer of leaf litter, or icy and dusted with snow.

Our Chinese trackers sprint ahead of us, effortlessly scaling the steep slopes in search of wildlife, while we plod behind, bushwhacking through wet bamboo and teetering across rocky stream beds.


Mr. Zhao scrambles up to the top of a tree and scans the dense forest from his perch, a two-way radio clutched to his ear. Even if we don’t find pandas, he is on the lookout for Takin — big mountain bovids related to arctic Muskox — flying squirrels, colourful pheasants and golden snub-nosed monkeys.


We crawl up near vertical slopes to high ridges and wait while they search. Fibrous green lumps of “panda poo” are spotted along the trail.


When our right-hand, bilingual and endlessly helpful guide Rolf (a.k.a. Yang Liang) gets an urgent call, we run.

Mr. Zhang and Mr. He whisper into their radios and whistle when they see something. We follow their whistles, stumbling through dense bamboo and scrambling over boulders as they push us along.

“Go, go, panda, run!” Mr. Zhao grins, gesturing up the trail.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that a timid panda might be spooked by all of this commotion and though we spend 10 days searching, usually there are only glimpses of the rare bears.

I’m getting used to bringing up the rear, only to arrive to glimpse a distant white blur in a sea of tangled bamboo, or hear the crushing words - “panda gone.”

The panda's distinct black and white coat offers perfect camouflage in the bamboo forest.

But we’ve come during the Giant Panda’s breeding season, so it’s a good time to encounter the males, several often in hot pursuit of a single female and almost oblivious to onlookers. This is what we’ve heard, if not seen, today as we wait by the trail for instructions from our guides. It's a sudden, unexpected clash that just happens to be almost exactly where we've stopped — a battle for supremacy and our prize a bloodied panda, apparently not the victor in this battle.

The bear stops at the edge of the rocky stream bed that separates us, then sinks into a pool of icy water, panting hoarsely and cooling its wounds. No one moves or speaks, the scene locked into our telephoto lenses.

The panda crawls onto a rock, dries itself with a dog-like shake and lumbers slowly toward us. Water droplets glint off its thick, muddy coat as it picks its way along the stream, dark eyes squinting behind the patchwork markings that make this unique bear instantly recognizable

We stand stock still, exposed and unable to frame the perfect shot or change a setting, digital drives whirring.

Suddenly, a glimpse or a whiff gives us away and it bolts, a fat furry bottom disappearing comically into the dense undergrowth.





The encounter is over in just five minutes but it’s truly amazing — one of the world’s last 1,600 or so wild pandas, so close, I can almost touch it.

It’s not exactly the Kodak moment a photographer dreams about. But we each have our own angle and Rolf, who has dragged me up every grueling trail, is as happy as I am, his grin as wide as this remote mountain valley.

It’s exhilarating to know these wild bears are still here, but sad, too, to know they are very likely to disappear. Their habitat is declining daily as people and industry encroach on forests and dam rivers, the Chinese economy focused on building more high rises and producing more consumer goods for the world.



On our last night we gather in a farmhouse near the station with our Chinese trackers for a special meal. Mr. Zhao and his elderly parents, his wife and sister eke out a living in these remote mountains and they prepare a feast, sharing what’s left in their winter pantry — strips of egg pancake, curly cloud ear mushrooms and smoky slices of tofu, fried with the familiar tongue-tingling Sichuan peppercorns that have flavoured every simple meal. The guides pour rice wine and pass bottles of Great Wall red to toast our successful expedition.



The next morning, after a three-hour uphill hike, we emerge from the forest, exhausted and happy for the comfort of a warm bus and the promise of a hot shower.

It’s not the kind of posh wildlife tour many in this group have encountered before, on safari in Africa or tracking polar bears in the Arctic, but this is China and, in hindsight, the adventure trumps the trials of our trip. We’ve shared a rare experience, observing wild giant pandas and supporting the people who’ve helped us. This kind of carefully controlled eco-tourism may help establish more reserves like Foping in rural China, and discourage locals from logging and poaching in areas where pandas can still live.

On the way back to Xi’an, our bus makes a stop at Daping Yu Scenic Spot. The large park has a couple of pristine captive pandas and a troupe of golden monkeys that perform when park staff proffer apples. It’s fun to see these adorable bears up close — and good luck, according to the Chinese — but with a dozen other photographers lined up on the slope snapping away, this is the easy way to watch wildlife.

When you find a truly wild panda, thriving in its natural home, I’m certain the good fortune is far greater.



IF YOU GO: Only a few tour companies worldwide organize tours into the wild areas of central China for panda bear watching expeditions. There are regular Air Canada flights from Vancouver to Beijing, with flights within China offered by partner airlines. Great Bear Nature Tours (British Columbia) www.greatbeartours.com <http://www.greatbeartours.com> Silver Safaris (South Africa) http://www.silversafaris.com/pages/photographic-tours/giant-pandas-china.php