WHAT! You can volunteer as a keeper for a giant panda? That’s right! I had an amazing experience volunteering at the Wolong Panda Reserve located about 35 miles West of Dujiangyan City, in the Sichuan Province of China.
The solitary and peaceful Giant Pandas are the national treasure of China, and have also been chosen as the iconic animal representing the World Wildlife Fund. Read more about my experience and some important details if you plan to volunteer also.
Background about the Wolong Panda Reserve and China’s Efforts
In 2016, the giant panda was downgraded to a ‘Vulnerable’ species at risk of extinction. The Chinese scientists and researchers have spent years learning about the panda’s behaviors, the most suitable habitats, and most compatible suitors to mate in order to help increase the population. But ultimately, they knew they had to reintroduce the domesticated pandas into the wild.
Through a lot of trial and error, they have released 6 pandas back to the wild, with 5 of the pandas being successfully reintroduced and acclimated to the wild. Their success in this, was by NOT allowing the pandas to be domesticated or familiar with humans.
The researchers would dress in panda suits, covered in familiar panda smells (poo and pee), to perform medical tests, clean their enclosures, or introduce potential predators to the panda to train its’ instincts.
Things to know about Pandas
Pandas are solitary creatures and can be very territorial. At most of the Panda Conservation centers in China, young pandas, who are able to wean off their mothers, are put together in what they call, a Kindergarten play area enclosure. This allows them to have interaction with other pandas of similar ages, to play and develop until they are three years old. At that age, their territorial instincts begin to show, so the pandas are separated into individual enclosures.
The reason why they have territorial instincts, are because, in the wild, there is limited access to bamboo. That may sound alarming, but, pandas are extremely picky eaters. There are hundreds of different species of bamboo, and the giant pandas only like to eat about 3 of those species.
Additionally, a panda needs to eat anywhere from 26-83 pounds worth of bamboo a day because bamboo holds very little nutritional value.
What to know before heading to Volunteer as a Panda keeper?
The cost for volunteering is around $100 US dollars, or roughly 700 RMB for a day. The Panda Center requires all volunteers to be in good medical health in order to work. (Because they work you hard).
They require a medical form to be filled out by your primary care physician after performing a physical confirming you are in good medical health, and also confirming you don’t have any diseases that could possibly be contracted by a panda. This form must be submitted before volunteering.
There is also an age restriction to volunteer. Anyone under the age of 10, or over the age of 65 can not volunteer.
What will you do as a Volunteer?
Clean and tidy a domesticated panda’s inside feeding cages and outdoor enclosures. That means, picking up their feces, cleaning scraps of bamboo, and getting a little dirty.
After that, you will have the amazing opportunity to feed a panda either apples, carrots or a special panda cake. You then will watch an educational movie about the Wolong Panda Reserve, and China’s efforts in the panda’s conservation.
Next, they will teach you how to make the panda cake, so that you can feed the panda one more time. (You will not get to hold the panda. If you would like to do that, they ask for a generous donation to hold a panda for a few short seconds to take a photograph.)
It’s a once in a lifetime experience to be up close and personal with any wild animal, let alone a Giant Panda bear. The bond and energy you feel from the panda is electrifying in a different way than it is with another human.
While feeding the pandas, it seemed to me as if they looked at me as a child would look at its mother for guidance or love. They feel nurtured by you and know that you are providing them clean living spaces and delicious food.
Watching them play and lounge in their outdoor enclosures, that I helped clean, gave me a feeling of accomplishment. It felt rewarding knowing that all my efforts will help improve the happiness and life of a panda that will help the population of the species progress.
With only about 1800 giant pandas in the world currently, China’s efforts in conserving this species has gotten the species closer to safety but is not finished trying to attain the goal of getting the giant panda off the list of species at risk of extinction.
Pandas provide ecological support to the world’s ecosystem by foraging bamboo forests and spreading seeds of plants around. This helps the growth of more plants and provides environments for other animals to live in.
Because the most suitable environment for giant pandas is located in an economically booming area of China, efforts in conservation of the natural environment in the area become more important every day. By improving the sustainability of the surrounding areas, and the panda’s environments, that will help enhance our ecosystem and keep the Giant Pandas alive.