They just may be the world's most adored, most adorable animals, and there is no better place to fall under their spell than this remote, mountainous region where most of the world's wild pandas still live.
Sichuan Province is also home to the world's two largest panda reserves. They are part tourist attraction, but mostly serious research centers, where scientists from China and other countries work side by side to save the panda from extinction with some notable success recently in captive breeding.
"We have four cubs from last year," said Mike Allen, who went to the area from Zoo Atlanta. "We have five from the year before ... and they have made incredible progress here."
Incredible, because pandas have enormous difficulty breeding on their own.
Inept With the Ladies
Many males, it seems, are downright inept at their reproductive role, a big problem since females are fertile for only three days each year. And even when they do succeed, pandas are born so tiny -- smaller than a human hand -- they struggle to survive. So scientists here have spent years helping the pandas help themselves.
"Five or 10 years ago, there was less than a 50% survivorship rate for young cubs into adulthood," said Suzanne Hall, a reproductive specialist from the San Diego Zoo. "But in the last several years that's improved dramatically."
Eleven-year-old male Gao Gao and 5-year-old Guo Guo recently were brought together to give it the old college try, and, as expected, it didn't work. So the professionals moved in, sedating Guo Guo with a dart and then wheeling her off to the operating room for a painless artificial insemination procedure.
Today, this technique accounts for more than half the births of pandas in captivity.
Despite all the human affection and the extensive breeding efforts under way here, the sad truth is the future of these animals is still very uncertain. Their natural habitat is still threatened by farming, logging and poaching. Even the growing numbers of well-meaning ecotourists are taking their toll as many roads and hotels are built in the wild.
"If the population keeps expanding farther and farther into the forest and up the mountains, they're going to wipe out the pandas," Allen said.
The hope is that human expansion can be tamed to give the scientists and the pandas more time to make more progress.
(People's Daily May 13, 2002)