In 2012，the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, WildAid, and the Yao Ming Foundation launched the second Chengdu Pambassador contest. The aim was to select three people from around the world to spread the message of giant panda protection through conservation education.
After a three-week competition in Chengdu from October 27 to November 17, 2012,I placed first in the contest and earned the title Chengdu Pambassador alongside Chen Yinrong from China and Melissa Katz from the United States. It was the end of an extraordinary contest in China, but the beginning of new goals for 2013 and for the promotion of giant panda conservation.
From November 2012 until April 2013, I carefully prepared for my return to China. I hoped to make the most of this incredible experience. With a lot of ideas in mind and excitement, I decided to arrive in China one month before our official Pambassador duties began.
I left my home in Toulouse, France on April 26, marking the beginning of five months on tour away from my native land. I began in Beijing where I arrived on April 27. It seemed out of the question to devote so many months to pandas without first visiting the Beijing Zoo. This institution is historically a key place for captive breeding of giant pandas. This facility was the second location in China to exhibit pandas in captivity, after the Chengdu Zoo. The initial start for captive breeding was on September 9, 1963 in Beijing when Li Li gave birth to Ming Ming, the first panda cub born in captivity.
From the beginning of May to the end of July, I spent most of my time at the Chengdu panda base working with the keepers, experts, veterinarians, educators, and visitors. During the first month I helped in the Giant Panda Cub Enclosure with Tan Jintao, a keeper who oversaw the care of eight pandas. His charges were Ya Zai, an adult female, and Mao Mao, a surrogate mother who raised three pairs of twins born in 2011. My daily responsibilities included collecting and weighing feces, removing uneaten bamboo, cleaning enclosures, feeding the animals with fresh bamboo, apples and panda cakes, preparing enrichment objects, and observing veterinary checkups. It was an incredible opportunity to be an assistant panda keeper, and I learned many things alongside Tan. In May I spent three days in Chongqing where I visited the Chongqing Zoo. This zoo cooperates with the Chengdu panda base and has played an integral role in panda breeding since I960.
In June, Yinrong and Melissa joined me in Chengdu. In addition to the regular keeper duties each morning, we met with experts to talk about breeding, genetics, diseases, behavior, wild populations, the role of conservation education, and the panda foundation. Thanks to the time and efforts of Hou Rong, Sarah Bexell, Xu Ping, James Ayala, Lan Jingchao, Shen Fujun, and of course Zhang Zhihe, we gained a better understanding of the role played by the Chengdu panda base in giant panda breeding, scientific research, and public education.
While in China I also traveled throughout the country to visit other zoos and institutions that participate in panda conservation efforts. These sites included the Fuzhou Panda World, the Shanghai Zoo, the Shanghai Wild Animal Park, the Bifengxia Panda Base of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP)，and the Louguantai Panda Base of the Shaanxi Wild Animal Rescue Center (SWARC). After three months in China and gaining more knowledge about the species, its biology, captive breeding programs, and how to spread the message of conservation education, I left China. On July 26, Melissa and I began a Panda Global Conservation Tour in 12 countries plus Hong Kong and Macau.
We began in Japan where we met the staff of the Tokyo Ueno Zoo, the Kobe Oji Zoo, and Adventure World of Shirahama, the three institutions housing giant pandas in Japan. With the leaders and keepers at each place we discussed the situation of the pandas and their facilities, about efforts to breed the species, and more importantly, how to educate visitors. It was wonderful to see all the information for the public and all the volunteers explaining facts about the biology and the ecology of each animal.
The second stop was Thailand at the Chiang-mai Zoo. Our first day here, we observed how Lin Ping’s keeper carefully trained her in anticipation for her return to China. We also learned that the next day was Chuang Chuang’s birthday; he is a male panda living at the zoo. The staff invited us to come back the day after to celebrate his birthday and we enjoyed decorating Chuang Chuang’s enclosure with balloons, ice bamboo, and fruitcake. It was a memorable event to be welcomed by the panda team who were pleased to share their facility with us.
Our next stop was Macau, in Coloane Island, to meet Kai Kai and Xin Xin who lived in a special pavilion built in 2010 in the Seac Pai Van Park. In the same park, an entire building was renewed and is now the Macau Giant Panda Information Centre.
The fourth stop was in Taiwan at Taipei Zoo where Sheney Lee, from the conservation education department gave us some details about the panda cub born on July 6, 2013.
Yinrong joined us at our fifth destination, Australia. The Adelaide Zoo received two pandas, the female Fu Ni and the male Wang Wang, in November 2009. Simone Davey, the panda keeper, offered us an incredible behind-the-scenes tour. As we were in the Southern Hemisphere, it was prime breeding season. Wang Wang was very active, and it was interesting to exchange over the modalities of the reversed breeding season compared to the Northern Hemisphere.
The last two stops in Asia were in Hong Kong Ocean Park and Singapore’s River Safari. In these two places, media events were organized by Xinhua. These occasions gave us the opportunity to interact with visitors, answer questions, and promote the conservation of the giant panda and its habitat. We had the chance to discuss conservation of threatened species overall.
After the tour of Asia, we departed for the Americas to visit Canada, USA, and Mexico. We began at Canada’s Toronto Zoo where Li Mingxi, from the Chengdu panda base, led us to the panda area. This zoo received its panda pair on March , 25, 2013. Er Shun, the female, is from Chongqing, and Da Mao, the male, is from Chengdu. Upon entering the panda area, visitors begin at the Panda Orientation Centre, a building entirely devoted to public education where volunteers provide visitors with further information and knowledge based on the exhibition.
Two other media events were organized in the United States of America, one in Atlanta and the second one in Washington DC. The visitors at Zoo Atlanta and the citizens of Washington DC were invited to participate in a Q&A session where they could ask us all their questions about pandas. A photography exhibition was held in the National Mall near the White House to encourage discussion and promotion of giant panda conservation. This was also the opportunity for me to meet Rebecca Snyder, curator of mammals at Zoo Atlanta. She studied Lun Lun and Yang Yang at the Chengdu panda base before their arrival in Atlanta, Georgia’s capital. We had been in contact with one another over the years and it was an honor to meet her in person. She offered us the chance to see the younger twin cub born last July 15.
At last we flew to Mexico City to see Xin Xin and Shuang Shuang, 23 and 26 years old respectively. These two pandas were descendants of pandas offered by China to Mexico and they hold a special place in the hearts of the Mexican people.
We finished our worldwide tour in Europe. Maria Delclaux Real de Asua, veterinarian and curator of mammals, welcomed us to Madrid Zoo on September 13 and was very proud to give us some updates about the third cub of Hua Zuiba, born on August 30. Chen Xin, a keeper from Chengdu, was in Madrid to help the local keepers care for the newborn panda.
The twelfth stop was in Scotland where a media event was held at Edinburgh Zoo. We had a very interesting discussion with several students and members of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. We spoke about the most common threats for the wild pandas and their habitat and engaged with the audience about conservation efforts and the future of this species in China. We made a quick stop at Schonbrunn Zoo in Vienna, Austria. Eveline Dungl, a zoologist, researcher, and graduate student, led us around after we listened to a thesis on the visual abilities of giant pandas. We all watched Yang Yang and her third cub who was 36 days old the day of our visit via webcam. I had previously met Eveline in 2008 and we maintained contact since my first trip to Vienna.
We completed our global conservation tour in France, my home country. Since the arrival of Huan Huan and Yuan Zi at Beauval Zoo in Saint-Aignan, I have had positive contact with the management of the zoo and they organized a giant welcome for us to celebrate the last step of our travels. Everyone in the zoo’s leadership, Frangoise Delord, chairwoman, Rodolphe Delord, director, Delphine Delord, director of the communication and education, and Delphine Pouvreau, panda keeper, was there to attend the event. We received a scarf of honor, a certificate of honor, and we cut a ribbon according to French tradition. Several members of local and Chinese media attended the afternoon’s proceedings. I was proud to be at home, celebrating the achievements of this wonderful tour at the Beauval Zoo.
From May to September, I met myriad people who strive each day for pandas； to care for them, improve their captive conditions, study their breeding, advance knowledge, educate people, spread information, and facilitate cooperation across borders. It was an extraordinary opportunity to share and learn alongside each one of these passionate and devoted people from around the world all striving for one cause: the black and white iconic animal of China. I want to congratulate all of them for the importance of their work, their kindness, and for the time they devoted to us. Everywhere we visited, we were welcomed with open arms and it was enriching to explore so many cultures gathered in support of panda conservation.
During those five full months I enjoyed each day as a Pambassador. Learning more, participating in each activity, and combining my personal experiences with conservation education deepened the experience for me. Explanations about threats to giant pandas and their habitats, as well as the promotion of panda conservation added to our pooled knowledge and contributed more to the continued protection of our ecosystems and planet. I completed my experience by chronicling all my activities and visits on my website, www.pandas.fr. This allowed people around the world to understand our tour and discover all the places with pandas and the issues involved in their conservation.
Finally, I discovered a culture with so many facets that three months can give me only the wish to explore more: the Chinese culture. A special thanks goes to Dr. Zhang Zhihe who always paid attention to our project and to our assistants who become friends and without whom my experience would not have been the same：Liu Fei, Qu Jing, Miao Yuheng, Liu Yijun, and Tang Yafei. My last words of thanks are for Melissa and Yinrong, my co-Pambassadors, with whom I loved sharing this unique experience.