Stalking pandas in China is a damp, yet fulfilling adventure - even in you don't find any, reckons Mark Carwardine
I dropped to my knees with a sharp yelp of joy and started taking photographs – there’s nothing quite like a steaming pile of fresh panda droppings to make a trip to China really worthwhile.
Since your chances of glimpsing a giant panda in the wild are little better than seeing Claudia Schiffer amble out of the bamboo forest in her negligée, a pile of droppings is the next best thing. Indeed, in the world of scatology, a panda dropping is considered something of a collector’s item – the Penny Black of bowel movements. A steaming dropping is particularly exciting because it’s the panda’s way of saying: ‘You just missed me...!’.
My particular droppings (not mine in the literal sense, of course) were lying at the base of a tree, high in the mountains of Wolong Nature Reserve. Shrouded in mist and mystery, Wolong is the most famous of China’s 40 panda sanctuaries. It is a spectacular region of true wilderness, right at the edge of the Tibetan plateau, covering an area considerably larger than Greater London. Yet its south-east boundary is only 130km from the bustling city of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province.
In Wolong, we followed a narrow valley, crossed a rickety footbridge and meandered along a rather precipitous trail up the mountainside. Higher up, the undergrowth became more dense and clumps of bamboo began to appear. The forest itself was cold and wet: everything was sodden, and everywhere water trickled and dripped.
There was barely a twitter from the bushes, nothing visible in the trees above, and no eyes peering furtively from between bamboo stalks. But it didn’t matter. This was the place where endangered giant pandas live their secret lives – strangely, just knowing they were out there was more than enough.
Standing in that tangle of bamboo I had the same feeling I often have back in England, when I’m sitting in the office watching the rain on a grey Monday morning. It’s a feeling that only a naturalist could possibly understand. All I have to do is to imagine the pandas lurking in their dense forest... or badgers fast asleep in their underground setts... or sharks cruising the ocean depths... and the world seems OK.
Zoologist Mark Carwardine is the author of more than 40 books and presented Nature on BBC Radio 4 for many years (www.markcarwardine.com).