National Geographic : 2016 Aug
74 national geographic • August 2016 amount,” she says. Her puffy orange slippers shush across the floor as she chases an escap- ee. “My body never recovers. I’ve lost hair from being under so much stress.” There is massive pressure, she says, to keep the cubs alive: “They are so important to China.” Most pandas at BFX will spend their lives in captivity, in China or in zoos abroad. But else- where in Sichuan Province, researchers have a much wilder future in mind for baby bears. Hetaoping, the older panda base within Wolong Nature Reserve, is a series of stone and concrete buildings socked into a valley of the Qionglai Shan mountains. In the late 1970s the Chinese set up a field station on the forested slopes here and, since 1980, have been working with the WWF, the first Western organization worked at another panda breeding center for years: “Bears are so stoic, especially pandas. You really have to freak them out to get a reac- tion that we’d perceive as stress.” They learn to cope and may seem relaxed, she says, “but if we could sit down and interview them, we’d hear something very different.” Smithsonian ecolo- gist William McShea adds: “What we are asking them to do—basically have sex in a phone booth with a crowd of people watching—has little to do with real panda reproduction.” Still, the Chinese are getting big results. In 2015, 38 cubs were born in China. (BFX pro- duced 18 of them—its highest number yet.) In the panda kindergarten building at the center of BFX is the immaculate incubator room, where the cubs, when not with mama or a surrogate mother bear, get 24/7 human care. Separating mothers and babies is controversial, but it boosts cub survival when staff can place a weaker or rejected infant with an attentive surrogate. Visitors outside press their noses and cam- eras against the incubator room window, oohing and aahing over five fluff balls in baskets on the floor. Some of the cubs are napping; others are wide-eyed and wiggly, squeaking like dog toys. Liu Juan, petite and shy behind square- rimmed glasses, is working a 24-hour shift, her second one that week. She has a toddler son who stays at home with family. “This job is more intense,” she says of mothering the pandas, “but I love being with them.” Incubating the newborns, bottle-feeding, rocking, burping, responding to their bleats for attention, rubbing bellies to stimulate the gut, weighing and measuring, and keeping toddlers from wandering—“the work is nonstop, a crazy When not in the care of a mother or surrogate mother bear, panda cubs receive 24/7 human attention in a nursery. ‘They always need something,’ says a caretaker.