We Were Giant Panda Volunteers in China

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A visit to China would be incomplete without taking a chance to get up close and personal with China’s Giant Panda. Since zoo’s really are not our thing and we prefer seeing animals in a more natural environment, we decided to see China’s famous icon at one of the 3 Panda Research Centers that reside near Chengdu in Western China.

The panda center closest to the city of Chengdu is a very crowded place to visit since loads of buses bring tourists from all over the World to this site daily. Although it is still a research center, it has more of a zoo appeal. We wanted something different, so we opted to see the pandas from a volunteer perspective.

We did a full-day volunteer program that involved spending a day at the Dujiangyan Panda Center, approximately 2 hours outside of Chengdu. The program would give us a chance to get up close and personal with the pandas by cleaning their pens, hand-feeding them, preparing their food and assisting the workers of the center with daily tasks.

Giant Panda Volunteer Program China


Dujiangyan Research Center

The Dujiangyan Research Center is 1 of 3 Woolong Panda Centers. These centers are put together to help sustain, recover, distribute and rehab the Giant Panda for the World. Each center has a specific role that aids in this process.

The Dujiangyan Center is focused on quarantine and rehab. Any pandas that are recovered in the wild and cannot be returned due to injury or other natural causes are housed in this center.  Additionally, all pandas that come and go from China to other countries are routed through this center.

Visitors are allowed to come to this center during open hours and due to its location outside Chengdu, a solid 2-hour drive, there are not very many tourists or locals here.

There is an onsite museum and paved walkways to explore the outside enclosures with many opportunities to see the Giant Panda going about its day to day business.

Giant Panda Chengdu China Divergent Travelers

Giant Panda Keeper for a Day

Within Dujiangyan are 50 separate panda pens but we were responsible for assisting with just the ones closest to the main center. We were assigned a manager, introduced to the 3 other people that would be helping that day and then headed straight towards the pens to begin our work for the day.

Our first task was to clean the interior part of the panda pens. The manager coaxed the panda into the adjoining pen and onto the scale to capture a daily weight measurement while we simultaneously closed the separation gate.

Our task while this was happening was to set straight to work cleaning out the old bamboo from the pen. Once this was cleared, we formed a pile outside the building and started cleaning up the manure and hosing down the interior enclosure. 

To finish off the interior tasks we added fresh bamboo to the pens and double-checked all the gates and locks.

Giant Panda Volunteer Program China


Giant Panda Volunteer Program China

Once the interior was secure, we entered the outside pens, where we began the same tasks from inside, cleaning manure and discarded bamboo. Each pen has an automatic water pool which was also swept out and scrubbed. This task is done daily to ensure the best water quality for the sensitive Giant Panda.

When the cleaning of the outside pen was complete, we exited the area and again secured all the doors and locks. At this time we could then release the Giant Panda from the interior enclosure to have free reign both inside and out. 

Each time we did this the panda would rush outside to inspect every corner of the pen before retiring back inside with a bamboo shoot in hand.

Giant Panda Volunteer Program China


Giant Panda Volunteer Program China

Making Panda Cakes

The Giant Panda’s that live at the Dujiangyan Research Center are fed a very careful diet. The researchers want to ensure their absolute best health to increase their survival and reproduction rates.

Their diet consists of bamboo stalks, shoots and panda cakes. Each panda is served these items based on their weight and dietary needs and because they are big animals, they eat a lot of panda cake.

After working outside we headed to the panda cake preparation building. Preparing panda cakes is a serious business and we went to great lengths to ensure there was no contamination of the food.

We washed our shoes, then were dressed in surgical garb from the head to our toes to be sure we didn’t pass anything onto the Giant Panda’s that would potentially make them sick.

Giant Panda Volunteer Program China


Giant Panda Volunteer Program China

We entered the main kitchen where a lady was mixing large amounts of panda cake dough and pouring it onto the large aluminum tables that stood in the center of the room. The dough was thick, heavy and grainy as a mixture of soybeans, vegetables, bamboo, eggs and water. Imagine a cornbread type substance with a bland smell and you will know what a panda cake is like in raw form.

Our duty was to take the dough with our hands and work it into panda cakes. The process was intricate, believe it or not, and took some time to shape and form the dough to the precise shape and weight needed for serving.

After being shown the rough amount we needed, we all tucked into the piles to begin filling the trays. There was much emphasis on making sure it was packed hard and we used our hands to press and pound the dough together before cupping our hands around it and shaping it into cylindrical cakes.

Much like you would when working with clay. The pandas are each served four of these cakes per day, so there was 4 loads of dough to press, shape and bake. This activity took us the better part of an hour during our day.

Hand Feeding the Giant Panda

Following lunch, we assisted in preparing the afternoon meals for the Giant Panda. WE carefully weighed and measured each serving for the appropriate Panda and then fixed a dish for each one. The time had come for us to get really close and hand-feed their afternoon meal. This is the most special part of the day.

During feed time the panda’s act like little kids, overcome with excitement pacing and then sitting while you prepare to feed them. They take each item from your hand delicately and wait patiently for you to reach close enough to feed them.

Being able to sit so close to them and watch them shuck the outside off the bamboo shoots and munch away was a special experience that we will not soon forget.

Giant Panda Volunteer Program China


Giant Panda Volunteer Program China


Giant Panda Volunteer Program China

All Good Things Must Come to an End

The end of our day consisted of another round of cleaning pens and then paying a visit to their public education center in the main building. This is set up like a museum and has many displays to help educate people on their efforts in preserving the Giant Panda.

The amount of effort these people put into this job is amazing and without them, we may well live in a World without pandas.

Giant Panda Volunteer Program China

Would you ever volunteer to work with the Pandas in China?

Disclaimer: We partnered with Viator to bring you this amazing experience. However, all opinions are 100% mine. All photos created and owned by Divergent Travelers.

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About Lina Stock

Lina is an award-winning photographer and writer that has been exploring the world since 2001. She has traveled to 100 countries on all 7 continents. Member: SATW, NATJA, ATTA, ITWA

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6 thoughts on “We Were Giant Panda Volunteers in China”

  1. This is so cool! I’m going to be volunteering with sea turtles next summer in Bali and can’t wait to be up close and personal with them! If I ever find myself in China I am definitely going to look up this panda volunteer experience!

  2. Wooh Lina, thats a hood thing to do, have you ever thought of volunteering in Africa? home of many animals. I recently had a chance to interact with the chimps..

  3. SO cool! I want to get to some sort of animal sanctuary an volunteer! Pandas, elephants, tigers…anything really! Looks like a great time!

    • Hi Katie! Yea it was incredible. We love doing volunteer work with animals. Currently have volunteering with elephants in Thailand on our radar! 🙂


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