The original kung fu panda, the baby bear that inspired sketches of its Hollywood avatar, lives in a city you may not have heard of. The real baby Po is a three-year-old local celebrity named Kung Zai who has found his inner peace chomping tens of kilos of bamboo in an air-conditioned chamber behind glass walls.
While Kung Zai eats, sleeps and rarely kicks in front of the 2,000 daily visitors who travel to Panda Road in Chengdu, surveyors are following trails of panda droppings to count his elusive family and friends in the mountainous forests of southwest China.
The ongoing decadal census of the giant panda is likely to reveal a rise in the population of the world’s rarest bear. At last count, 1,596 giant pandas — the last of the eight million year old species — still survived in China’s wilderness.
“We estimate that the number of giant pandas has grown,’’ Hou Rong, Director, research center, at the Chengdu panda base, told HT. “A little bit."
“The panda numbers will be higher than the last 10 years,’’ agreed Xie Yan, China Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “We have reasons to be optimistic."
Until India this year declared that its tiger population had increased to 1,706, there were more giant pandas in China than tigers roaming India.
China has used ingenious and often drastic methods to bring pandas back from the brink of extinction. But their future still looks ‘bleak,’ says the narrative in a video at the panda base in Chengdu.
This 100-hectare forest inside a northern suburb of the congested, 13-million strong capital of Sichuan province that claims to have the country’s largest software park, is squeezed in by urbanisation like the Borivali forests in northern Mumbai. The comparison ends in location; unlike the depleting wildlife in Mumbai, the Chengdu family is growing.
The panda base has increased the population of China’s national symbol from six in 1987, when it was established, to 34 ten years ago and 96 today. Its collection of the foxy red pandas — shifu the meditative kung fu guru in the DreamWorks animation — has grown from zero to 19 in 2001 and 60 today. Another 317 pandas are bred in captivity.
“Our plan for the next 10 years is to increase the population,’’ said Hou, “To 120-150 for both giant and red pandas.”
A bearable match
The television screens in Chengdu’s shops selling panda accessories for ponytails and cell phones show the challenge of match-making pandas disinterested in the opposite sex. Researchers have shown the bears panda porn videos. They spy on their relationships using DNA satellite technology to know couples from cousins and prevent interbreeding among the indistinguishably black and white bears. A standard method today is sedating pandas and applying mild electric shocks to collect semen.
“The biggest challenge is to maintain genetic diversity,’’ said Hou. “The original group of pandas interbred among each other may not have carried all their genetic characteristics, so there is a great danger that certain genetics might be lost.”
A panda is also China’s great consumerist challenge. A 100-kilo panda in this centre eats his way daily through 15 kilos of bamboo leaves, 20-40 kilos of shoots, half a kilo apples and cakes steamed with corn, soybean, oats, rice, wheat, vegetable oil and vitamins. The centre buys 5,000 kilos of bamboo per day from the shrinking vegetation of the rapidly urbanising province.
The high-profile panda may have distracted the government from species in dire need of protection. China had less than 50 wild tigers left in 2010, the lunar year of the tiger, and aims to double their number by 2022, the next tiger year.
The Chengdu base is organising a research group to prepare select pandas for release in the wild, an experiment that had some failures so far. In some nature reserves, handlers now wear full-length panda costumes to prevent baby bears from getting used to humans.
“First, we have to find an environment very similar to the wild for the pandas to adapt, develop abilities to survive, and capture food,’’ said Hou. The pampered Chengdu inhabitants are not ready, yet, to take the big step back into their natural home.
However, HT’s tour guide said the bears are not that lazy. “We saw two-three pandas cooperating with each other to scale the moat,’’ he said. “Now there is an electric fence to keep them inside.’’
The panda is not just China's best-known ambassador. In 2008, the Sichuan government turned to the panda to lift its image from the rubble of an 8.0 magnitude earthquake that killed nearly 80,000 people and left five million homeless.
“After the earthquake, the government wanted to improve the image of Chengdu and prove that it’s worth visiting,’’ Liu Yulong, a local official, told HT. “Even for Hollywood’’.
Officials Googled the producers of Kung Fu Panda and invited them to tour panda country. “To our surprise,’’ said Liu, they showed up and were introduced to the bear that inspired the making of baby Po.
A slew of Beijing’s nationalists recently advocated boycotting Kung Fu Panda 2 as an American 'cultural invasion,' but the Sichuan government shrugged off the backlash and released a statement defining the movie as ‘deeply connected’ to the city’s culture.
“Artistically, the film is very Chinese. If you like the movie, watch it," Liu said. “Don’t like it, don’t watch it."
We were chatting in the three-centuries-old ‘narrow’ and ‘wide’ Qing dynasty lanes. Its sloping grey rooftops with dragon carvings are depicted in the fictional sequel with storefronts selling hot pot and noodles. In reality, the lane is lined with cafes selling Seattle coffee, Italian gelato and Indian roti.