Panda Love #RTW

How do you get a panda to sit still?

With lots of honey. This is what I learned while visiting the Chengdu Panda Base during a morning layover on this, my extraordinary expedition around the world by private jet.

That’s right. I got to cuddle a baby panda on my private-jet layover in southern China. Let me tell you, that sure beats gnawing a pretzel dog at JFK. In fact, after this, I’m not sure I’ll ever be content with any other kind of travel than an all-first-class private jet around the world that stops for pandas. The freedom to jump from one stupendous destination to another is extraordinary, especially when it allows you direct access to one of the most important conservation stories in the world.

I remember when the giant panda became the flagship of the environmental movement, way back in the eighties. In my own lifetime, I have watched the world take notice of this remarkable creature and the challenges it faces (loss of habitat, food, and tricky breeding), and I have witnessed a global effort to keep China’s endemic star afloat.

Sadly, the plight of the panda is no less urgent today than it was when I was a kid hugging stuffed panda toys. Presently, only 2,000 animals are left in the wild, reduced to an ever-shrinking, disconnected habitat. In my hometown of Washington, DC, the National Zoo works tirelessly to preserve pandas and produce new offspring, highlighting the very complex problems faced by the species in the wild. For me, coming to China and experiencing pandas in their natural habitat made it all the more evident that with all threatened animals today, only our most concentrated, collaborated efforts will succeed in countering the damage already done by humans.

So, what’s it like to hold a baby panda? (As great as holding a penguin?)

Well, it’s pure heaven.

When I sat down next to one-year-old Shuang Xing (“Double Star” in Chinese), I was immediately overwhelmed by what a big baby she is, sitting there like a couch potato in front of the television, licking her honey-soaked paw and quite oblivious to my arm around her broad shoulders. Panda fur is dense and bristly and they have a woody, musky smell: like forest soil and green tea.

Aside from the unbearable cuteness of pandas, and my self-admitted anthropomorphizing projections, holding a baby panda in my arms cranked up all the joy in my heart and left me feeling incredibly privileged merely to be next to such an animal as this. I walked away feeling so honored by an animal that did not even say goodbye, but merely continued to lick sticky honey off her clawed hand.

Of course, I know that kissing and cuddling pandas will not help the species survive, but for me, hugging Shuang Xing was most definitely the experience of a lifetime, and that is really what this trip is all about.

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Kissing baby panda Shuang Xing at the Chengdu Panda Base (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)