I’ve been in China for the past 2 weeks in a place called Louguantai, just south west of Xi’an. I’d taken it upon myself to head to China through Real Gap to volunteer at a wildlife rescue and research centre called Louguantai Wild Animal Breeding and Protection Centre, in the Louguantai National Forest Park. During my time there, I was an assistant zoo keeper to giant pandas; feeding and cleaning their enclosures, and also helping the keepers with their English. I chose to volunteer with pandas specifically because they’re a very endangered species (only 1600 remain in the wild and 300 in captivity) and I wanted to give something to panda awareness and conservation, as well as to get up close with these fascinating creatures. During the weekends we ventured back to the city to do some sight seeing, but during the week, we stayed in a volunteer hostel inside the wildlife centre, which meant we could go out and watch the animals at night which was pretty amazing.
I must spare a moment to mention Qizai- the only brown and white panda in captivity. I didn’t even know they existed before coming here, and apparently only 4 or 5 have ever been spotted. He’s certainly special, and I can’t quite believe I get to be his keeper for two weeks. You can google him to see more about him.
Our daily tasks involved meeting at the panda enclosure at 8am to give them their morning feed and clean them out. This was done by moving the pandas to a closed off area by luring them there with bamboo whilst we scooped out their poo (which really didn’t smell that bad due to their plant based diet), hosed down the floors and placed bamboo on a raised platform for them. They were fed copious amounts of bamboo, as well as carrot, apple and “panda cake” which was packed full of fibrous foods. We learned that pandas will only eat fresh bamboo so it has to be changed regularly, as once its dried out, they will no longer eat it. The bamboo was stored by being kept upright and sprayed with water periodically to keep it moist. The centre had 6 adult resident pandas while I was there, although they owned others who were away at other zoos on breeding programmes. This meant we had 6 pandas to clean out every morning, which didn’t take too long as there were 4-5 of us doing this.
After our morning chores had been completed, we had some free time to do with what we pleased. We were usually quite tired and just wandered around the centre watching the animals or went back to the hostel to play card games and chat. Lunch was at 12pm and the resident chef always cooked us delicious meals- seriously the best egg fried rice I’ve ever had in my life. After lunch, we would give the pandas their afternoon feed (more bamboo, fruits and panda cake) by holding it through the bars and letting them take it from our hands. They would snatch it and then sit on their bums to eat it. After the pandas were fed, we would help with any chores that needed doing, such as de-weeding the outside enclosures, cleaning the windows or sweeping up.
One of our afternoon “chores” also included helping one of the keepers feed the red pandas, which was incredible as we were allowed to sit in their enclosure and feed them raisins. I had expected them to be quite timid creatures but they were very inquisitive and climbed all over us- definitely a highlight of my trip.
At around 5pm, we were finished for the day, so had dinner and then enjoyed some free time. Our supervisors Robyn and Leo often organised things for us to do, such as hiking in the national forest, visiting temples or teaching English to children, and I have to thank them for organising and taking us to these places. I have written a separate blog post about exploring Louguantai National Forest, which you can read here. A fellow volunteer named Frank who lived in the area was very kind and took us to explore a local water town with his mother one evening which was honestly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen- again, I wrote a separate blog post about the water town here.
The Panda Kindergarden
The centre had a designated play area for toddler pandas and they would come out at dawn and dusk to play as it was a cooler temperature. I believe these guys were between 3 and 6 months old? I know you want to see some photos of pandas cubs…
All in all, I’ve had an incredible two weeks volunteering at the wildlife centre and it has probably been one of the best experiences I’ve had. I’ve learned so much about the behaviour of giant pandas and highly recommend everyone to do a volunteer with animals trip.
The Louguantai Wild Animal Breeding and Protection Centre does not have an online donations page, so instead I’ll leave you with the one for World Wildlife Fund if you would like to donate to help support giant pandas: http://wwf.panda.org/how_you_can_help/support_wwf/donate/donate_panda.cfm