'One panda is worth 10 of our lives'
There are about 20 zoos around the world where you can see the giant panda in captivity. But where’s the fun in that?
Animal lovers can find pandas in their natural habitat in the protected Caopo Nature Reserve, just over a mountain pass from the better-known Wolong Panda Reserve in Sichuan province, China.
There are only a few hundred pandas left in the wild and chances of seeing them are slim. Pandas are skittish and they flee when they sense humans or other potential predators.
But I was told to talk to Hu Guo Wen, a 64-year-old farmer who not only came face-to-face with a panda five years ago, but had to fight back when it attacked him. Yes, cute and cuddly they may look, but pandas can be vicious if they feel threatened.
“I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never seen a panda,” says Mrs. Luo, one of Mr. Hu's neighbors.
While Jinbo villagers often spot signs of pandas such as tracks, feces and half-eaten bamboo, only Mr. Hu has been unlucky enough to be attacked.
While picking medicinal herbs on a mountain ridge, Hu heard rustling nearby and a 136-kilo panda emerged. He tried to run down the mountain but the panda gave chase and took a swipe at his leg.
He pushed the panda away and was able to escape with only a scratch. He still wears the pants he wore that day and eagerly shares the story with visitors.
So did Hu gather a band of villagers to hunt down the furry perpetrator? When bears or other animals attack humans in other countries they are often hunted and killed to protect the people.
“No way -- if we kill a panda, we’ll get in big trouble,” says Hu. "The local officials have said that one panda is worth 10 of our lives. I’ve only seen pandas twice in the past 30 years and I hope it’s the last time I come face-to-face with them. I was very scared."
The story of this rare attack is disquieting, but undeterred my friends and I set out on our panda quest.
Our trek takes us up a beautiful mountain pass through various villages and a cow pasture more than 2,000 meters above sea level. Needless to say, we didn’t spot any pandas or even any evidence that pandas were in the area.
We return to the village to learn that a villager, jealous of the owner of the homestay where we are staying, has called the county police to report that foreigners are poaching pandas.
The police visit Jinbo village while we are on our one-day hike, but our hosts reassure them that we are most definitely not in the panda-trading business and they leave without further action.
Hiking isn’t the only activity available to visitors to the village.
Caopo county is made up of Tibetan and Qiang minority families who grow organic vegetables and meat for their own consumption, and they produce beautiful embroidery as well.
I feel like I have stepped into an authentic working village and it is definitely far removed from other commercialized homestays that feel more like boutique hotels.
This is pastoral living at its most authentic.
Between working in the fields, doing housework and stitching their embroidery, Jinbo families cook, dance and sing traditional songs for their guests minus the "cultural village" fakery seen elsewhere in China.
It was a truly rustic Chinese village experience, and a glimpse of rural life in the region, even if the pandas were not as convivial as the people.
Buses run to Caopo county from Chengdu’s Cha Dianzi bus station. Contact social worker Frank at email@example.com for homestay reservations and direct transportation arrangements. Chinese readers should visit www.lvgeng.org for details of homestays and other social enterprises.