The Great Oakland Panda Hunt 

The search for increased international trade sometimes leads city officials into very exotic places--China's Wolong Giant Panda Preserve, for instance

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As we depart on the four-hour drive that will take us into the mountainous reaches of the Wolong Preserve, these worries start to dissipate; here in the mountain air, talks with Chinese scientists breed an infectious enthusiasm. The setting couldn't be more idyllic: after climbing through an industrialized river valley replete with mines and dams, we reach a deep canyon shrouded in mist, with a gem-colored river rushing over smooth boulders at the valley floor. The hills are steep and craggy, laced with greenery and touched, here and there, by the delicate lilac blooms of rhododendron. Compared to the executive-floor five-star rooms most delegation members have opted for on this trip, hotel rooms in Wolong Town are modest, with feeble space heaters and lukewarm water--but as we stroll along the single road, waving to local Qiang minority farmers who till the fields in front of their age-old stone homes, we realize the comparative luxury of our accommodations. And apparently we ourselves are also quite a sight; Griffith with her African braids and dark skin and Emmanuelson with her curly blond hair attract unabashed wide-eyed stares from these highland folk.

At the heart of the preserve, Wolong Breeding Center had a remarkably successful year in 2000. That means there are eleven baby pandas here for us to play with--although perhaps it would be more accurate to say there are six new foreigners for the pandas to play with, because these creatures definitely want some face-time. "I think it's one of the great moments of my life that I got to be so close to that many giant pandas," Parrott later reflects. "They've always been the cutest teddy bear in the shop, and I can say firsthand it's a great experience to have a giant panda reach out and hold hands with you." There's no question here of whether human contact will disturb the wildlife--these youngsters are clambering to reach through the bars of their pen, eager to touch each of us as much as they can, pull at our clothes, and lick us if possible, tumbling endearingly, and bleating excitedly the whole time. Before long, everyone in the group has lost our better senses in the face of rabid panda-mania, and we find ourselves stocking up on the pandaphernalia plentifully available in the matching souvenir stands that add a touch of kitsch to these otherwise too-good-to-be-true surroundings.

Not all of Wolong is utopian; some adult pandas still live in small concrete enclosures. But Sichuan Forestry Department Deputy Director Yuan Shijun explains that big changes are slated for this facility, and funding has already been identified to build more of the large hillside enclosures where some of the adult pandas already roam. A new baby panda nursery has already been built, at a cost of about $30,000. And outside the research center, plans are also afoot. The Wolong area is slated for ecotourism development, which will include one five-star hotel, one four-star hotel, and several three-star hotels. The eco-tourism initiative is an attempt to balance a unilateral ban on logging in panda habitat imposed over the past few years with some means for local villagers to develop economic stability.

Tourism development, of course, is not without its critics. A recent study published in Science magazine found that the rate of habitat loss in Wolong itself has actually increased since the area was declared a protected preserve in 1975. The World Wildlife Fund, an international nonprofit that has long been involved in panda preservation, urged advocates to take this report with a grain of salt, pointing out that habitat degradation and loss certainly would have been much worse without the steps taken by the Chinese government to protect it. Even so, Karen Baragona, giant panda conservation program manager at the WWF, told me that ecotourism efforts need to be handled very carefully. "Even things like managing the trash need to be considered," she says. "It's tricky to make sure it's benefiting the local people without allowing such a high volume of tourists that it causes an impact, like you see in the US." For his part, Parrott says he is encouraged by the plans he sees at Wolong; "I'm a big proponent of ecotourism." The Chinese plan to build 28 new preserves --which would mean that about seventy percent of existing panda habitat would be protected. As we tour the facilities, taking in the unfinished wooden examination table and the thin stock of medicines, the importance of somehow being able to contribute to this great effort seems closer. When we meet with the research center's lead scientists, we learn just how valuable the UC Davis contribution could be--not only politically, making the Oakland proposal more attractive to the Chinese, but practically: now that researchers in China have found what seems to be a highly successful reproduction process--through a combination of breeding and artificial insemination --their worry has turned to genetic diversity. Since every female receives more than one set of sperm when she is in heat, it's impossible to tell the patronage of those adorable babies --unless, of course, you happen to be one of the world's leading vet labs in genetic identification. Which UC Davis just happens to be.

So will the Oakland Zoo eventually get a giant panda, or two? That remains to be seen, and there are certainly many challenges on the road ahead. But the possibility doesn't seem as far-fetched as it once did. Maybe I've simply succumbed to the appeal of the "cutest teddy bear in the shop," as Parrott calls them, and to the lure of the beautiful mountain valleys that still offer them a home. As we head back to the crowded, dusty streets of Sichuan's capital city, Parrott talks about the vital need to protect pristine lands, and about the power of the panda: "When you say giant panda, everybody listens, and with that comes tremendous power. If there's that much passion and compassion for one species, it can carry the flag for the entire ecology; it can carry the flag for much of the conservation movement to preserve wildlife internationally. It's a very small step to say, 'Not only do we need to save the giant panda, we need to save the African elephant; we need to save all these different species that are on the endangered-species lists.' The more we can foster that bond, well, God bless the giant panda for that. Developers can say, 'So what if the poison dart frog dies.' But with the giant panda, even they understand. If the giant panda is gone from the earth, something is wrong. And that's why I'm here."

Oakland may have started this project as a way to jockey for a place in the global economy, but at the end of the day, it may end up with global ethics it didn't even know it had.

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