Global Search for Chengdu Pambassador 2012

The Global Search for Chengdu Pambassador 2012 was a program launched for the second time by the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, WildAid and Yao Fundation to recruit 16 volunteers from the four regions Asia-Pacific, Americas, EMEA, and China. The finalists were selected during a series of previous competitions held in each of the four regions where participant’s conservation knowledge, ability to spread the conservation message, and physical skills were tested. During the 3 weeks in Chengdu the candidates faced a training at the Panda Base side by side with experts, explored the wild habitat of the Giant Panda, and experienced the Chengdu Panda Valley a place where pandas can get ready to be reintroduced in the wild. At the end of the program three contestants were selected as spokespeople to promote the conservation message all over the world.
Below you can gain all of the details of this incredible experience through the diary I daily wrote during the 3 weeks in Chengdu.

    October 28th

It’s been two years since I took part in the first edition of the “Search for Chengdu Pambassador 2010” contest and Chengdu still looks like the same to me. It is a faster growing city, but from what I’ve seen so far it is well maintained and green areas are not missing. In this second edition of the Global Search for Chengdu Pambassador 2012 we are 16 contestant coming from Europe (Italy, UK and France), United States, China and Asia-Pacific. We are the finalists who won the Semi-Finals about two weeks ago among many other competitors from all over the world. Each of us has a personal bond with pandas and conservation and we are here to share it. In the afternoon we had a briefing during which we got to know better the event organization committee, the Panda Base staff and our host families which will help us to learn more about Chengdu, Chinese culture and will work with us to complete some tasks. We also got to know each other better by making a short speech each in order to understand the reasons of why we are here and want to make a difference in conservation. We formed four groups of four finalists each which are going to work together for the next days, a chance to cooperate and be part of a team. At 8 pm a big welcome ceremony was waiting for us. We received so much attention and it was great to see so many people being interested in this program, as one of our goals is to raise people awareness on giant panda conservation.

    October 29th

This morning we finally got to spend our first day at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. I was personally excited to go there again after two years and meet the conservation education staff who is going to follow us during our stay at the Base. We had a welcome ceremony at the base once arrived and with our surprise there were banners with our photos and names through the road which leads to the meeting area. We also received a special gift from the Base, a beautiful personalized hoodie with an amazing panda painting on the back. During our first visit we got to see the Moonlight and the Sunshine nursery houses where panda cubs are host and red pandas enclosures. It is always touching to observe those unique creatures, to look at their faces, their expressions, their movements, and at how they behave. It is also quite unexpected their ability to climb trees as they might seem lazy and move in slow motion if seen them for the first time, but the truth is that they are actually very good climbers. During the afternoon we took part to a seminar during which a lot information was provided to us. Experts taught us about giant panda conservation, safety rules when dealing with pandas and their care, reproduction techniques, and how to rare giant panda cubs. Giant Panda is a flagship species critically endangered and it is currently found in only 6 mountain ranges in southwestern China. It is a symbol of nature conservation all over the world, and it is a species that have a huge impact on people. Chengdu Panda Base goal is to reintroduce captive pandas into their natural habitat and increase their population. Put efforts in giant panda conservation doesn’t only mean to save pandas but also to protect all the other species that share their same habitat, such as golden monkeys, red pandas and snow leopards to name some. There are approximately 1,600 pandas in the wild and 333 in captivity. A successful technique used at the Panda Base is artificial insemination which is fundamental to increase giant panda population since natural breeding is kind of difficult in captivity. It is extremely important to focus on the reasons of why panda is critically endangered: on the first place we find human activity that causes deforestation with loss of habitat as a consequence. This is extremely negative for pandas since habitat fragmentation avoid them to move through their territories to look for food and partners. Other causes are bamboo flowering, pollution which causes temperatures to increase and a relocation of the pandas to higher altitudes, and finally reproductive characteristics. If we are willing to make a difference in panda conservation we have to keep those things in mind and understand that if we want to save a species we have to save its habitat first.
A special event also happened in the evening, we got to meet and name the panda cub which was born on the first day of the Olympic Games in London. Before coming to Chengdu all the finalists were asked to pick their favorite name among a long list proposed by panda fans. Mine was Atlas because it is a very powerful name and it could have been used a symbol of cooperation among all countries. The name which got more votes was Oreo (in Greek means gorgeous) chosen by the finalist Rebecca Revich from the USA who also got the chance to hold it showing her immense happiness and enthusiasm.

    October 30th

The main topic that was developed today at the Panda Base was animal enrichment. Animal enrichment is fundamental to help wild animals that live in captivity such as giant pandas. They must systematically get stimulated otherwise they can develop abnormal behaviors. There are many different kinds of enrichments such as physical enrichments, food enrichments, social environment enrichments, sensory stimuli enrichments, and behavioral training enrichments. Enrichment is necessary in reintroduction programs such as the one carried out at the Panda Base. Pandas must be stimulated every day with new enrichments, in fact novelty is a fundamental requirement. After our lecture we had the amazing opportunity to train a panda with panda keepers’ help. We were provided a whistle and a metal bar to train the panda. Pandas from the Chengdu Base only respond to “Sichuanese” language so to make them adopt specific postures, we had to pronounce the words with the correct pronunciation. If the panda responded correctly to our request we would whistle and give it a piece of apple. It was incredible to see how clever they were and keepers also informed us that pandas can feel our emotions. They can understand if we are nervous or feel confident. It would be extremely interesting to go through this aspect more. The first assignment of the day was to draw and create a panda enrichment using materials and tools provided by the Base. We got very busy working on our personal enrichment, and everyone looked very enthusiast and creative. We used bamboo, ropes, PVC tubes, etc. to make our enrichments. The goal was to create some sort of an object the panda can get busy with and that can stimulate its senses. During the afternoon we took some group pictures with a one year old cub, a very touching experience, and we made panda cakes, a nutrition supplement pandas eat when in captivity. We got to know the basic steps of the process used to cook them and we also made our own panda cakes. Panda cakes ingredients are corn, rice, wheat, oat, oil, water, and other natural materials. We will learn more on how to make them tomorrow morning at the panda kitchen house. Today has been an intense day that gave us the opportunity to learn scientific facts and to be directly involved in giant panda management.

    October 31th

We got to the Base very early in the morning today to make panda cakes. Panda cakes are food supplements provided to pandas in captivity beside bamboo. Only four of us got the chance to enter the panda kitchen and experience the processes of how to cook panda cakes. Our task consisted in putting the mixture into shapes and distribute the unbaked cakes on a pan. Right after each pan was put inside an oven to let the cakes steam at high temperature to remove moisture. Once done each of the four groups had the chance to feed the pandas with panda cakes and apples, another treat for pandas. When feeding them, with long bamboo sticks, it is important to make the panda stand up and not just feed it while seated so that they can exercise. It was beautiful to look at them while standing up on their rear limbs and stretching their hind limbs and head to catch the food.
The main lecture of today was panda nutrition. We must remember that the giant panda belongs to the Carnivora Order which it reflects in its digestive system that is as short as that of other carnivores. Since bamboo is low in nutrition, pandas need to ingest large amount of food and that is why they also avoid to move much in order to save energy. In the wild their diet is 99% bamboo, while in captivity they are also fed with food supplements which constitute 5% of their diet. It might happen that wild pandas also kill animals if they come across them such as goats from rural farms and rats. That behavior is probably due to a carnivore instinct that is still inside them. In the afternoon we had a training on how to identify ten different species of bamboo. An expert from the Base provided us a lot of interesting information we would have used in our next assignment; the bamboo identification. Before starting our test we were shown how to clean bamboo and we also got to try ourselves. Water is the only component used to clean it, no other additive are included. As last we took our bamboo identification test. We had 5 minutes to recognize ten different species of bamboo and say if they were edible or not for pandas. A panel of experts scored our tests and gave as a number of points that will be sum up to our all different scores we will get during the competition.

    November 1st

In the morning we had a lecture on giant panda diseases. We went through different aspects such as parasitology, infectious diseases, internal diseases, obstetric diseases, and surgical diseases. The expert told us that parasitosis is the most serious among all diseases. Round worm is very common in giant pandas, but exist different species of worm that respectively infect wild and captive pandas. When infected from food ingestion or water, pandas will lose much of their weight. About infectious diseases, bacterial, viral and mycotic infections seriously compromise captive giant pandas. Effects are blood associated with feces, diarrhea and vomit. Among internal diseases we find acute gastroenteritis and intestinal obstruction which makes pandas lose their appetite. Cold is another internal disease, but pandas are not provided with many antibiotics. Obstetric difficulties and disorders in giant panda likely cause infertility, poor reproductive technique, unsuitable husbandry, and genital or other organ diseases. Trauma and bone fractures are common in captive pandas. In fact during breeding season males would fight to get the chance to breed first with the female.
Right after the lecture we participated to the launch of the new book “Giant Pandas: Born Survivors” written by Dr. Zhang Zhihe (also the director of the Panda Base) and Dr. Sarah M. Bexell, published by Penguin books. Each of the 16 finalists got to receive an autographed copy of the book. Both authors made a brilliant speech on how important is to protect this endangered species. I’ve been particularly touched by a sentence they said which was: “there is a difference between what we say and what we do”. That is absolutely true; if we want to protect a species we must be consistence with our choice.
In the afternoon we had our second assignment: diagnose the health condition of a panda. We were asked to fill out a multiple choice quiz. We had to assess the mental status, the feces quality, the ingestion ability, and the health condition of a panda by observing it. We had 10 minutes to select the correct options and a panda keeper scored us.

    November 2nd

Today was the “science instructor” day. The four teams had to present a 5 minutes presentation to a panel of judges pretending they were tourists looking for giant panda information. Our presentation focused on misconceptions people commonly have on giant pandas. Our purpose was to clarify those myths by addressing true/false questions. We touched topics such as panda cubs, nutrition, pandas vs. bears, and conservation. Once each team got scored, the four top finalist were invited to form the four new groups which will be last until the end of the competition. In the afternoon we had free time and we got the chance to see pandas get fed in the giant panda cub enclosure.

    November 3rd

Today we got to spend all day with our host families. In the morning we visited the beautiful Manjushri Monastery and got to learn more about the Buddhist religion. Despite the monastery was located in the center of Chengdu, the place was very peaceful and relaxing. We also visited the old surrounding area which was full of traditional shops. For lunch we went to a vegetarian style restaurant where we got a lot of tasty food. In the afternoon we spent a lot of time in an old area of Chengdu visiting local shops and looking at all the different kinds of traditional Chinese food. Our host family also gave us a special gift, a hand-painted scarf with pandas on it painted by a professional artist. For dinner we went to a local market to get food to cook at our host family’s house. I cooked a typical Italian meal, spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce. It is unique to have the chance to spend time with local people and get to know more about their culture and more about Chengdu lifestyle.

    November 4th

Today in the afternoon we took part to the toy charity event to sell tickets to get funds for the panda rehabilitation project. Buying tickets people will have the chance to win a gold coin if their inflatable panda will be one of the three fastest of a race which will take place in a river in a few days. Each team got to sell tons of tickets and each of us felt very accomplished and happy to put efforts in panda rehabilitation. People of Chengdu showed their kindness and interest in the cause buying lots of tickets and taking pictures with people dressed up as pandas.

    November 5th

On our 9th day we visited the Dujiangyan dam in the morning. The city has an irrigation system which transports water to Chengdu city. The water is both used for irrigation and domestic use. Structures and river shapes are also used to retain sand and transport clear and no sandy water. In the afternoon we went to Mount Qing Cheng, to appreciate high mountain’s nature. We took a cableway to reach the top of the mountain and we got to meet there a taichi master with his students. All the movements they showed us were impressive and kind of magical. They also taught us some taichi. The master took us to visit the Qing Cheng Wushu Museum. It would be interesting to spend more time with those people and learn from them in the middle of nature in a peaceful environment. Such a wonderful experience!

    November 6th

I was honored to return to Panda Valley and be involved in the panda rehabilitation project. I’ve been there two years ago but at the time almost nothing we saw today was under construction. The damages caused by the earthquake in 2008 were still clear, but now it is amazing to see that panda enclosures and buildings have been built. Panda Valley has the ultimate goal to reintroduce pandas from the Chengdu Panda Base into the wild. Giant panda’s habitat has been fragmented because of human activity, such as deforestation, cultivation, and city growth. Humans have taken too many resources from nature and have cut the habitat in small pieces. The philosophy of Panda Valley and Chengdu Panda Base is to help captive pandas to gradually go back to the wild. In 2012 six pandas were moved here. The area is characterized by a high biodiversity and it covers 133 hectares. It is located at an altitude from 720 to 1161 meters. There are three main areas in the Valley: the transition zone for reintroduction and conservation education area, a semi-wild release area, and wild release area.
The first giant panda specimen is kept in the Natural Museum of Paris. Ruth Harkness was the first man who brought a living panda out of China to the US. There are many fossils that are used to study giant panda evolution. The earliest panda fossil is from the Late Miocene (approximately 8 million years ago). The body of the panda changed during time: small (Miocene), big (Pleistocene). Pandas are affected by human population increase, global climate change and bamboo flowering. Changes in the climate cause northward movements because pandas look for cooler temperatures. Pandas have lost 50% of their original habitat in the Sichuan Province. The panda territory is broken into 20 pieces. This reduces gene flow, which means low genetic diversity and low adaptability to environmental changes. There are two kinds of conservation for the pandas: in-situ, which protects panda’s habitat, migrations, conserves the resources and build corridors, and ex-situ conservation which protects outside the natural habitat of the pandas. Gansu, Shaanxi and Sichuan are the three provinces which still have wild pandas. 62 are the reserves established so far. The aims of these protected areas are: improve genetic diversity, enforce small populations, improve reintroduction, and enrich panda ecology studies.
At the valley we got some water samples and recorded temperature and humidity for scientific studies. Each group collected 12 water samples from a narrow stream which flowed up in the Panda Valley. We recorded T°C and humidity using a specific tool and putting it in a non-windy area. We recorded both twice leaving a gap of 10 minutes. The average humidity was 70% and the temperature was around 11°C. We also got the chance to weight the panda Gong Zai attracting him with some apples. He weighed 95 kilograms. Study background: non-invasive samples. Feces are collected and preserved thanks to cryopreservation in a fridge. Studies showed hormones changes between Chengdu and Panda Valley pandas. Hormone levels changed a lot in the four females, while for the two males hormones change was very little. Hormone change is an important factor when we want to release pandas as well as their age.
Diet of giant pandas; where do they go eat? They prefer old-growth forests, suitable bamboo, abundant food and gentle slope. Feces are dark green when eat the leaves, while are yellowish when eat the stem. Mating: 4 to 5 pandas will fight for a female. The winner will mate first and the others will follow.
Males get injured when compete.
Home range: pandas have a well-defined activity range. They are territorial animals. GPS collars are used to measure their home range. Males territory are bigger than females ones. Females have more restricted habitat preferences, but both males and females prefer high altitudes. Pandas like to live in caves and tree trunks.
Communication: through urine and gland marking. Pandas also make scratch marks on tree trunks. They often live alone, but sometimes meet during the breeding season and live together for some time.

    November 7th

On the eleventh day we left to the mountains. I was very excited to have the opportunity to get closer to giant pandas natural habitat and spend some days in contact with nature far from the city. My hoping was to learn as much as I could from that experience and get to see different species and traces of animals and plants. The bus took us to the base camp of Long Xi Hong Kou reserve. We set up the tents and had dinner under a big tent. The reserve had many great experts, guides and cooks.

    November 8th

On the 8th we climbed up a mountain nearby the camp to get closer to wild panda habitat. It was sunny in the beginning and the sky was deep blue, but suddenly clouds covered it all and we spent the rest of the day in a deep foggy atmosphere. The hike was pretty hard, harder than I expected. The ground was very slippery and muddy. We had to use sticks and grab bamboo to help us climbing and getting down from the mountain. The slope was very steep, but our leaders helped us a lot and we also helped each other within our team. I expected panda’s habitat to be foggy, humid and steep, but when you visit a place for real things are different and even harder. Panda’s habitat was in fact humid, muddy and made of steep slopes and high mountains. That proves that pandas are good hikers and well adapted to cold weathers. At about 2270 meters of altitude we installed some infrared cameras to gain more insight on the different animals that inhabit the reserve.

    November 9th

Our third day in the mountains was easier than the previous one. The topic was: getting to know the panda’s society. We saw many faces left from other animals that share the same habitat of the giant panda. We can mention the takin, the ocelot, golden monkey, porcupine, Asiatic black bear, marten, weasel, pika, temminck’s tragopan, blood pheasant, golden pheasant, and koklass pheasant. The feces we found came from the takin, the panda, the ocelot and monkey. We also found interesting footprints, maybe left from some giant panda. The trail consisted on a bunch of big rocks deposited after a flood happened a couple of years ago which transported to lower altitudes gigantic boulders. It was important to me to see the wild habitat where pandas and other species live to realize what kind of job is carried out by giant panda experts and the very difficult conditions they have to go through. People must be passionate and believe in this cause to survive in the wild.

    November 10th

On the fourth day in the reserve we got to learn more about the typical plants that grow in that area, their basic characteristics, their functions and adaptations. We saw a very interesting plant which was previously used to make tea to prevent from cancer, but now that species is protected because it was exploited too much. The thing I enjoyed the most of the day was the trail we walked next to the lake. The scenery was beautiful because of the colors of the fog and water. Everything was very quiet and peaceful.
We had botany experts with us who taught us a lot about plants. We came across this important tree which is consider a national treasure in China. Its latin name is Davidia involucrata. It has white flowers that look like doves. It was discovered by the same man that first introduced pandas to the West world. We also got to enter the house of a family who protects the riserve. They had a small cultivation of corn and many greenhouses for rododendrum species growth.

    November 11th

On our last day in the mountains each team had to prepare a conclusion statement of this wild experience through an interactive speech. We designed our presentation by pretending one of our team member was journalist interviewing us. By this challenge we go to share all the knowledge we gained with a panel of experts making our speech dynamic and captivating.
In the afternoon the bus drove us back to Chengdu.

    November 12th and 13th

During these two days each of the four team had to work on a three minutes video on “Our Global Panda Conservation Tour”. We had to show what we would do as Global Pambassadors. We focused on two important aspects to promote giant panda conservation that are: education and collaboration with zoos and reserves.
Below you can find the final video I worked on with my team.

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    November 14th and 15th

These two days were given us to work on and submit our individual panda enrichment which would be scored on the final competition day.

    November 16th

On the 16th we went back to Panda Valley to take part to the introduction ceremony of a mom panda and her son in the reserve. The Valley had been hosting 6 pandas so far and now the number has increased up to 8. It makes me very happy to think that these pandas are now in the transition zone to familiarize with the new environment and that their destiny is to be released into the wild, the place to which they belong. Once arrived there we moved to the enclosure they would live in. All of a sudden a small gate opened and two pandas came out from their indoor enclosure. The mother came first followed by her young son. It was very touching to see them sniffing and exploring their new home. The cub was very active and started climbing trees easily. After assisting to their introduction we took part to a symbolic event which consisted in planting some bamboo in the Valley. The recovery of the habitat is fundamental if we want to protect giant panda, therefore planting vegetation can be a start to show our effort in panda conservation.

    November 17th

On the Final Competition day all of the teams had to hold a public speech on “Our Global Panda Conservation Tour”. We showed our video first and then we started talking about what we would do as Pambassadors and what would our goals be. We discussed about education in schools since kids, being the new generation, will have a big part in panda conservation, we highlighted how important is to cooperate with zoos and natural reserves as important places for research and education, we talked about being part of conservation in first person is extremely important to really understand what pandas are facing, and we concluded our speech by underlying the massive power that the media and in this case the Pambassador program have on the conservation of this endangered species.
The second part of the competition consisted in a series of challenges that included showing our panda enrichment, bamboo identification, weigh the pandas, and pandas physical training from which each team got a final score. The team with the highest score was announced as the winner.

These 3 weeks have been absolutely special to me and a unique chance to be directly involved in giant panda’s world. I’d like to thank the Chengdu Panda Base for giving me this opportunity twice. I’ll never forget this time and all the people I met and I will use this as a personal background to keep fighting for giant pandas and all the other endangered species conservation.


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