There is nothing quite like seeing pandas in China. It’s something I’ve done before but now that my daughter is older and also a fan of these adorable animals, I knew it was time to take her to Chengdu. One of the only available panda volunteer programs at the moment operates at Dujiangyan Panda Base, about 90 minutes outside Chengdu’s city center.
Here, they focus on disease control, care for aging pandas and also rehabilitate pandas from the wild. Pandas who are able to be released back into the wild are, but others who lack the skills or physical ability for life on their own stay here.
I’ll tell you how I planned our panda volunteer and photo experience at Dujiangyan Panda Base as well as what to expect when you go.
First, a Little Background
Before my daughter was born, my husband and I visited Wolong Nature Reserve where I was basically allowed to enter an enclosure with 12 baby pandas for an extended amount of time. Wolong, at the time, was about 3 hours by car from Chengdu partially via a crazy, often ill-maintained highway with steep drop-offs and a single lane for cars traveling in both directions. It wasn’t easy to get to so lacked many tourists which I assume is why I was able to enjoy an experience that is never to be repeated (and, really, rightfully so).
China has somewhat put the breaks on panda interaction. It used to be that you could take photos with both the giant panda and red panda at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in town. These opportunities have been suspended until further notice due to worries about panda health. The giant panda volunteer program at Bifengxia has also been suspended due to construction at the base. Wolong has been rebuilt and does not offer panda interaction or volunteer programs.
Volunteers do pay for the experience and I’d imagine that fees are a part of their fundraising. Hopefully, Bifengxia will reopen its program as we’d love to volunteer there, too.
Planning the Dujiangyan Panda Volunteer Experience
My Chengdu luxury hotel was The Temple House, which I would highly recommend (I’ll tell you more about why soon) for your holiday here. I am a huge fan of utilizing concierge teams for planning because they tend to work with the best tour operators and can supplement itineraries with their own advice. I asked The Temple House’s team to coordinate the experience on my behalf and I booked one of the hotel cars to take us to Dujiangyan. The benefit to having our own driver is that we could arrive and depart on our own terms, the car was comfortable and we could use the car’s WiFi (truthfully, I am not a fan of Chinese taxis so avoid them when I can). I paid all of our volunteer and panda photo fees in cash to staff at Dujiangyan Panda Base.
If you are not working with a concierge, it’s possible to book a trip to Dujiangyan Panda Base including volunteering and/or an optional panda photo through Viator (I’ll tell you more about what to look for in a tour later). In this case, your fees are paid in advance so you won’t need to worry about bringing cash. However, check with the tour operator you choose for exact details.
Arrival to Dujiangyan Panda Base
We left The Temple House at 6:30 a.m. as we needed to arrive by 8:30 a.m. There is traffic in Chengdu so the journey took exactly two hours. Our driver walked us to the entrance and was able to identify who we needed to check in with.
A few tour buses dropped visitors off in the morning but they were gone by lunch. Dujiangyan is a much quieter panda base than the one in town.
We were escorted in to the volunteer area and given clothing to change into. Personal belongings were locked in a locker (though by a key placed which was placed a cup next to it that in theory anyone in the office could grab). We were able to slip a smartphone into our pocket but I also slipped in my daughter’s smaller Sony A5100 camera with its kit lens. It was bulky and a little awkward to have anything other than an iPhone in my pocket. We needed to wear gloves for most of the work, which were also supplied.
Volunteer Work First
Dujiangyan Panda Base has little shuttles that take guests from the entrance to the panda enclosures uphill. We hopped on board one with our guide/panda keeper. Our first assignment was to clean the enclosure of an older panda. And, you do actually work so there’s no real time for photos.
Pandas eat 20-40 pounds of bamboo per day. That’s a lot of poop and leaves to pick up in one enclosure.
We scrubbed their little drinking pool and swept a huge common area free from bamboo leaves which is a bit tricky with Chinese brooms.
Keepers need to split bamboo for older pandas which basically involves whacking it really hard against the ground. I’m telling you, I was a bit sore after the fact.
Maybe he heard the breakfast preparations, but one of the pandas decided that he wanted to check us out. It was incredible, though separated by glass, to be inches away from a social, adorable giant panda.
We spent several quality minutes with him here. If our volunteer experience ended here, it would have been worth the drive but it only got better.
Part of the benefit to panda lovers like us is that you are privy to loads of detail from keepers. We spent time talking about the personalities of each panda and learning their individual stories. The volunteer program definitely raises awareness of the panda’s plight and I bet causes participants to love the cuddly bear even more than they did prior to walking in.
Or, at least that’s how we felt… as if it was possible for us to be bigger panda fans than we already were.
Photo with a Panda
Dujiangyan Panda Base allows a limited amount of people per day to take a photo next to a panda for an extra fee. Visitors are not guaranteed the opportunity because if the panda isn’t into it, the deal is off.
We walked to a secluded part of the base and waited while the keepers brought out a baby panda. At 1.5 years old these aren’t exactly small pandas but they sure are cute. The first panda was really not into it. He playfully walked out of his enclosure with the keepers and was more interested in climbing all over the bench and doing somersaults than eating bamboo next to a human.
The second panda, on the other hand, was more than willing to eat lunch in front of paparazzi. Fifteen people signed up for the opportunity, which is high by the keeper’s standards so each of us was allowed about 10-15 seconds next to the panda. It feels much longer than that, however. Our instructions were that we could put our arms around the panda and pet him, but to avoid his ears.
I appreciated that one of the keepers took smartphones and took huge bursts of photos with them. I probably have nearly 100 on mine, but it really did help to capture a handful of good photos because there really isn’t time to pose. And, they caught some real gems.
I would say that the pandas were out for between 5-10 minutes total. The keepers are quick to keep the photo session moving and short.
Panda Feeding Time
After this, we headed back to the volunteer office and were taken back to the same panda enclosure we cleaned earlier in the morning. It was time for the pandas to have lunch. Instead of bamboo, we fed them carrots and bamboo cakes. This was surprisingly even more incredible than sitting next to the panda for a photo because it’s a chance to look into their eyes and take note of what they’re doing without pressure of the cameras.
The pandas are trained to keep their arms out like this for distribution of medications if necessary. They take their arm away when not hungry anymore.
As you can imagine, after lunch, it was panda nap time. We wandered around the center to see the other pandas. The most famous resident at the moment is Bao Bao who just arrived from the Washington DC Zoo to participate in the panda breeding program in China. The keepers told us that she responds to both English and Mandarin but preferred the way the U.S. panda keepers made bamboo cakes. It took her a while to get used to the Chinese recipe.
By this time it was almost noon and the center was very, very quiet with only a handful of people visiting.
Our program included lunch with the panda keepers but my daughter was fading from all of the activity. We decided to hit the gift shop and call it a day, another benefit of hiring a driver. I would say that we arrived back to The Temple House before 3:00 p.m.
Good to Know
As you’ll be wearing a volunteer uniform, I’d suggest wearing leggings and a fitted shirt underneath so that it’s not too bulky. You will be bending over, lifting and working. Athletic shoes that can get dirty are also a must.
The center has a gift shop with ice cream and drinks. Later in the day, snack carts outside of the entrance showed up to sell food. We didn’t eat so I’m not sure what it was like. The gift shop also sells panda stuffed animals and other panda trinkets
Diehard fans can watch pandas at China bases including Dujiangyan through iPanda.
If you have time, the Dujiangyan irrigation system and Mount Qingcheng are not too far from the base. Both are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Some Viator tours combine stops to these spots with a visit to the pandas.
Speaking of tours, there are a few things that you need to consider. Some will start off at a low price, say $50, and then give you the opportunity to add on a panda photo and/or panda feeding for an additional cost. Some will skip the volunteering portion completely and only offer the photo and feeding portion. I think you might miss out if you skip the volunteering as the keepers are full of information and you’ll be able to ask them questions to learn even more about what they do behind-the-scenes and each panda’s habits. If time and budget permits, I suggest that you find a bundled tour with transportation from your hotel, volunteering, panda feeding, lunch for you and a panda photo. Expect this to cost (at the time of this writing) between $400-$500 per person. If priced higher than this, find out what else the tour operator is offering as a part of the experience that could be worthwhile (or not).
The drive to Dujiangyan panda base is quite lovely on mostly flat, easy, clean roads. You’ll pass through farmlands. Chengdu is a very clean city overall and, again, one of my favorites in China.
Have you volunteered with pandas?