The panda bear. Is there a creature that symbolizes the animal kingdom’s mortal struggle with human encroachment, habitat loss and procreation dysfunction as much as this reclusive bamboo cruncher fending off extinction in the hills of central China? Estimates as to how many of these wild pandas are still at large vary from less than 1,000 to 3,000, but nobody really knows because these iconic animals are also one of the most furtive on the planet.
But panda fans can get their fill by visiting the Bifengxia Panda Base in Chengdu, China, home of the largest captive giant panda institution in the world. Here, large groups of pandas are fiercely protected in sanctuarylike settings, and visitors can get up close and personal with the creatures. Natural Habitat Adventures (NatHab), a Colorado-based company with a long list of exotic, naturalist-led tours around the world, offers a 12-day Wild & Ancient China tour package that includes, among other attractions, two days at the Bifengxia base.
“The excitement of our guests is beyond audible when we come here,” says Rick Guthke, general manager of NatHab. “It’s palpable.”
The visit begins with a short briefing about pandas — specifically the myriad conservation issues surrounding them and why these bases need to exist in the first place. “I think the staff there realizes that our natural thought is, ‘Why are we seeing pandas this way instead of in the wild?’ ” says Tom Nolle, a regular NatHab client who took this trip last September with his wife. “But most of these animals simply wouldn’t survive today if we put them in the wild. So, at present, here’s a compromise for a species that has really reached critical mass, and one that also allows us to really appreciate them.”
In addition to panda photo ops, guests here are occasionally permitted, after donning protective clothing, to enter the adolescent-panda enclosure for a close interaction that may involve a 1-year-old panda lumbering through your legs or clutching your arm. “That was definitely the highlight for everyone,” Nolle says. “If you have the opportunity to interact with an adolescent panda once in your life, don’t think twice.” www.nathab.com
A quick look at the way humans have mythologized wolves over the millennia — as everything from sun-god disciples to roguish grandmother impersonators — would imply that we just can’t quite get our heads around them. But there’s one place in northwestern Indiana where you can try.
“It can be a pretty emotional experience when guests meet a wolf face-to-face for the first time and get to marvel at their beauty, curiosity and unmistakable intelligence,” says Holly Jaycox, managing director at Wolf Park, a nonprofit wildlife facility based in Battle Ground, Ind., dedicated to improving the lives of wolves both in captivity and in the wild. Guests of all ages are welcome to view the 39-year-old facility’s 14 gray wolves (there are also foxes, coyotes and a bison herd) from outside the fence. Wolf lovers, though, will opt for the three-day Wolf Intensive Weekend that actually allows guests ages 18 and older to safely interact with socialized wolves inside their enclosures — one of the few places anywhere that does so.
“It’s a very controlled, USDA-licensed setting, with wolves that have been socialized on the property from puppyhood,” Jaycox notes. “They’ll approach, and they may even sniff you or lick your face — we always leave it on the wolf’s terms.” That said, she adds, “you will not mix them up with dogs.”
The weekend package (offered twice a year, in June and October) includes three dawn-to-dusk days of staff-led lectures on wolf behavior, history and folklore. There are two evening sessions when guests sit on bleachers above a seven-acre wolf enclosure and literally howl with the wolves. On Sunday, a wolf-bison demonstration allows people to watch as wolves are mixed in with the property’s resident bison herd — to prove, among other things, that predator-prey relationships are often far less exciting than what we’re accustomed to seeing on TV. But the real highlights are the daily interactions — when the barriers come down and the wolves and humans meet.
“On the final day, we spent several hours lounging in a meadow in the largest enclosure with five wolves surrounding us,” says Sue Otto, a recent attendee. “What I will remember most is looking into the wolves’ eyes and into the soul of a wild being — a longtime dream and one of the highlights of my life.” www.wolfpark.org