The giant panda is one of the world's most popular animals but sadly it is also one of the most endangered. A 2006 study estimated there were just between 2500-3000 in the wild in China. Others live in captivity in Chinese research centres and a few in zoos around the world.
Giant pandas once roamed Southern China but they are now confined to pockets across six remote mountain forests. The habitats have been largely disconnected from one another because of logging, agricultural use and huge rises in human population.
But the Chinese government has now established these habitat areas as protected nature reserves and developed panda corridors which attempt to connect the separated areas. That, hopefully, will lead to an increased panda population.
It's comforting to know that efforts are being made to encourage the salvation of the giant panda. One place doing its bit is the Shaanxi Rescue and Breeding Centre of Rare Wildlife, about 65 kilometres south-west of Xi'an at the foothills of the Qinling Mountains. The area is very remote and rural and doesn't rate a mention in most guide books.
The village of Loguantai is very small, with just a few restaurants and hotels, a Taoist temple and local villagers' homes. It is backed by mountains and overlooks a river. Surrounding forests are quite beautiful and are full of Chinese pine, juniper trees and bamboo.
The centre is home to 13 giant pandas three were born in captivity plus golden monkeys, crested ibis, the takin (which is a large sheep-like creature living only in China and Bhutan), the sika (which is similar to a deer) and red pandas, which are small and have tails. These have all been rescued from poachers, orphaned or born in captivity.
The main purpose of the centre is to encourage breeding and to re-introduce captive pandas into the wild. In 2006 a young panda named Xiang Xiang was the first born in captivity to be released into the wild.
The centre has a staff of around 50 and five of them take care of pandas and supervise volunteers, who pay for the chance to work with the bears. The pandas are in enclosures which have an indoor concrete section and outdoor grassy area. They are free to move about and while it appears they don't have a lot of room, their conditions are superior to a typical Asian zoo.
The volunteers are placed at the centre for between two to four weeks. The money they pay to work at the centre covers all activities, food and accommodation, as well as of course going towards helping the project survive. Not only do volunteers assist staff with looking after the giant pandas and other animals, but they help the staff learn English something which is important for attracting tourists and generating revenue.
A volunteer's day starts at around 8am and they work until 4pm. General tasks include cleaning enclosures, collecting bamboo, feeding the pandas and helping with veterinary treatments. Those with the correct skills can update the website and maybe help design tourist literature. In their free time, volunteers can trek in the foothills of the Qinling Mountains or grab a lift into Xi'an and explore the city.
There are a few requirements to be accepted as a volunteer. You must be at least 21 and you have to first submit a CV. The centre looks for mature and responsible people with good communication skills. They need to be prepared to get stuck in and help with a wide range of tasks and as the project is in a remote location with limited facilities, they must be independent and confident.
Panda conservation volunteering costs $2945 for a two-week program. Accommodation, meals, TEFL certification, airport pickup, orientation, constant support on a one-to-one basis..
STA Travel has two-week packages including flights, accommodation, most meals and airport transfers starting at $4275 per person.
Prices correct at June 21, 2007
Shaanxi Province in China
For further information
Panda Conservation details can be found at STA Travel
Ph: 134 782