Pingwu County, Sichuan, China is completely vertical–it is the northwest edge of the consequence of the Indian sub-continent drifting into Asia and pushing the Tibetan plateau 14000 feet into the air. Narrow valleys have roads pasted along their sides, towered above by enormous steep cliffs that often slough off the roads during the summer rains.
This is also habitat for the few remaining wild pandas, China’s iconic wildlife species. Probably only around 2000 pandas still exist in the fragmented habitat of Sichuan, but Pingwu county is a healthy patch in which they live. They are notoriously shy–some students receive there Ph.D.s without ever encountering one in the wild during their years of field research.
Part of the danger of having guests coming to China is that they want to see it all in the 8 days that they are here. Imagine if your Spanish cousin came to visit you in Denver and asked if it would be possible to pop down to New Orleans for a night, then go to San Francisco, and be back before the weekend. Then add in rough, constantly-in-construction roads, no civil aviation, no airports at all where nature actually is, and you can see how difficult it is to get visitors to see all of China’s wildlife in 8 days.
But there we were, 25 of TNC’s best and brightest scientists and professionals from Africa, Latin America, China and other parts of Asia on an 8 day tour in two small buses zooming around the canyons of Pingwu. For those of you that know me, you know that I am not very good company when cooped up in a car all day. So at our next stop, a “45 minute” hike into a nature reserve, I decided to get my workout in for the day.
Our host opened the locked gate and we crossed a rudimentary bridge and proceeded up a side canyon that quickly took on the primeval. The walls were near vertical, plastered with greenery, and the stream very steep. I hustled on up ahead and broke into a run. Running out of trail after about 2 miles, I worked my way up a different side canyon in a dry creek bed for another 2 miles. As my conscience about keeping my colleagues waiting started to overcome my desire to keep exploring a landscape like none I had ever seen before–bamboo, huge trees, massive boulders, waterfalls dripping moss and fern–I slowed down.
And then I heard the oddest sounds. “Baaaaa. Baaaaa.” and some popping noises. I don’t know the birds of China well enough to identify by sound, so I stopped and looked up for a while. It continued and I could tell it was coming from one side of the canyon and was being answered from the other. Then I thought it might be a monkey–I’m a lawyer by training, so I don’t know their sounds either, though some would say lawyers are equally less evolved….. I kept listening and the sounds continued. I made my way up the creek and around a corner slowly, stopping and watching every so often.
Finally the baaing stopped. I climbed up onto a boulder to get a better view around. 40 meters away I saw 2 pandas running up the steep slope away from me–and some movement in some nearby bushes that indicated a 3rd. I watched them until they disappeared into the dense brush–only about 5 seconds. I was stunned. At the time, I didn’t realize how special it was to see these animals this way, and I also wasn’t really sure what they would do to me if threatened. I have spent a lot of time around grizzlies in Wyoming and Montana, so was thinking that going forward to investigate might not be a great idea. But after a few minutes I couldn’t resist and hacked my way through the bamboo to where I had seen them in hopes of finding some evidence. I found lots of footprints and took a few pictures or them, in the hopes of persuading someone I had actually seen the Giant Panda.
When I got down I described the sound to North Asia’s chief scientist, Matt Durnin, who has a Ph.D in Pandas from Berkeley. He confirmed that was the sound and the footprints of a panda. I felt like I should have played the lottery that evening–the chances of seeing a wild panda in the only 45 minutes I would spend in their habitat that week must be astronomically slim. But sometimes it is better to be lucky than smart.