Among the most famous and popular animals in the world is the panda bear, whose existence in the forests of central China had been threatened by deforestation and economic development throughout the 20th century. Since the 1970s, however, conservation efforts have allowed the panda population to nearly double, allowing scientists and tourists from around the world to observe their majestic qualities and playful personalities.
On a recent visit to Chengdu (currently the fourth largest city in China with a population of over 14 million), I enjoyed a unique experience unavailable anywhere else in the world. In the foothills of the Qionglai mountains about an hour’s drive west of Chengdu is the Dujiangyan Panda Research Center, which is home to approximately 20 pandas including U.S.-born pandas Tai Shan (born in 2005) and Bao Bao (born in 2013), both of whom were born in the National Zoo in Washington D.C. and subsequently returned to China under the panda lease agreement.
Unlike many zoos outside of China which are privileged to host usually at most two pandas at a time, the Dujiangyan Panda Center allows tourists to visit over a dozen pandas for a small admission fee of about $12. However, for a significantly larger “donation”, one can experience pandas much more up close. For a payment of about $120, one can become a “volunteer” for the day, helping to prepare food for the pandas and cleaning up their dens.
But the ultimate experience requires one to plunk down an additional $300. This buys you 20 seconds to sit alone with and hug a panda cub, just enough time to capture priceless memories via photos and video. Despite the hefty fee, demand is very high and the experience (limited to 20 persons per day) sells out weeks in advance. All of the funds collected are used to advance further conservation efforts, which has recently allowed the panda to be removed from the endangered species list.
- Eric Chiang, Author of Economics: Principles for a Changing World