Ah, pandas. Few animals are more iconic, especially when you consider that their main discerning feature is being adorable. Of course, there is plenty to love about pandas beyond their cuteness, not least the fact that they spend most of their time sleeping, eating, and minding their own business.
The panda’s status was downgraded from endangered to vulnerable in 2016, but there are still significant threats. Their natural habitat is being increasingly destroyed for human development, while their slow reproduction cycle makes it very difficult to increase the population. At the moment, there are an estimated 1,800 pandas in the wild, and they need all the help and attention we can give them.
This is where you come in. As a volunteer at a panda conservation center, you can contribute to the preservation of this wonderful species and work to protect their environment. The fact you will get to spend your days hanging out with pandas is, of course, a bonus.
Where to Go
Pandas are endemic to China. There are several panda conservation projects throughout the country, most of which are in the Sichuan province. The largest panda research center in the country is the Chengdu Research Base, located in the province’s capital. However, only three panda bases in China accept volunteers.
The Bifengxia Panda Base is located in Sichuan province. It covers almost 400 hectares of mountain space, divided into 58 enclosures and cared for by 144 permanent staff. Volunteers help out with day-to-day tasks such as feeding, cleaning, and research activities. Most multi-day volunteering opportunities are based in Bifengxia.
The Wolong Panda Center at Gengda is based in the Wolong Nature Reserve, which contains 60% of the world’s pandas. In 2008, an earthquake devastated this region of Sichuan and destroyed the original Wolong Panda Center. A new one has been rebuilt in Gengda. It is the largest panda breeding center in the world.
The Dujiangyan Panda Base and Center for Disease Control is based near Chengdu. It covers 126 hectares, and focuses primarily on rehabilitation for diseased, injured and aging pandas.
Most panda volunteering programs are similar in nature. You arrive in Chengdu, where you are taken to the Chengdu Research Base and introduced to panda conservation work. You are then taken to accommodation in the mountains and volunteer with one of the research bases for most of the day. Most of these programs are based in Bifengxia, as it is the largest.
Both Gengda and Dujiangyan offer day-long volunteer experiences for visitors. These are ideal for people who are traveling within Sichuan province, but are not a good option if you specifically want to go to China to volunteer with pandas.
Planning Your Trip
Your chosen volunteer organization will arrange most of the details, including housing, food, and internal transport. However, you will probably need to arrange your own travel to and from Chengdu.
How to Choose a Panda Volunteer Program
The actual volunteering portion of most programs is very similar, with most of them taking place in the same reserve, so you should look at other criteria. Check online reviews of various programs, keeping an eye out for comments on the housing, food, or general support and organization.
Another factor is of course cost. Panda volunteering programs cost on average $100 a day, but some can be considerably more expensive than this. These usually offer something extra, such as nice restaurant meals in Chengdu or private accommodation.
Health & Safety
A good volunteering organization will take care of you and make sure you are not in any danger. Pandas themselves are exceptionally docile and pose no threat, making them one of the easiest animals to work with.
Do make sure you have adequate travel insurance before going on your panda volunteering adventure. There is little risk of anything going wrong, but in case it does, you want to make sure that your insurance covers transfer to Chengdu and any treatment you may receive there.
Other Need to Know
There are no strenuous health requirements for volunteering with pandas, although it is hard work. While you are going to be able to spend plenty of time with the pandas, you are not there to cuddle and play with them. You will be preparing their food, carrying bamboo, and yes, cleaning up the natural result of all that bamboo-chomping. This means you will need a positive attitude and a willingness to get your hands dirty.
Most programs are based in hostels in the mountains. These housing facilities are usually very simple, with shared rooms and squat toilets. Some of these will have WiFi, but most of them will not. Food is usually Chinese, served by the hostel you will be staying in.