Two pandas climb a tree in China

I Volunteered at a Panda Reserve in China. Here’s How You Can Too

Kay Kingsman

Kay Kingsman

June 3, 2024

7 min read

I’m not a morning person, but I tend to make exceptions for cute animals that could kill me. When the shuttle picked me up at 6am from my hotel in Chengdu, my guide and translator twisted around in the front passenger seat as I slid in. “Good morning,” she greeted, “I’m surprised you booked the tour today.” 

“Why?” I asked. Was the tour not good? Was it a waste of money? Was it not a tour at all, and I had been bamboozled on the internet, and it was all a big kidnapping scheme that I would have to learn to live with because my mother always told me she didn’t negotiate with terrorists?

My guide shrugged, “Today is Singles’ Day. It’s a big shopping day in China.” She flipped her cell phone around so I could see her digital shopping cart. “But this is much more wholesome. Get ready for the cutest day of your life.” 

The drive from Chengdu, China, to the Wolong National Nature Reserve, one of China’s oldest and best-known panda reserves since 1963, took about two hours. My guide passed the time by sharing a few facts about Sichuan Province, known globally for its food, technology, and pandas. 

A panda eats bamboo in China

Pandas are native to China, specifically the Sichuan province, and are not naturally found anywhere else in the world. Pandas have also become the international icon for animal conservation, which is due in part to their cuteness, but also the lengths the Chinese government has taken to protect its most iconic wildlife. Like many endangered species around the world, pandas are threatened by habitat encroachment, poaching, and rapid environmental shifts. Famously in 1928, Theodore Jr. and Kermit Roosevelt traveled to China to hunt and successfully kill a giant panda in the wild. 

China noticed its wild panda population declining at unprecedented rates in the 1960s, which prompted an immediate and extensive nationwide conservation program. Panda research centers, also known as panda sanctuaries, were opened across the province to provide space for scientists to learn more about the species in a controlled environment and develop systems to aid in panda conservation. After decades of focused research and dedicated attention, giant pandas were officially moved from the endangered list to vulnerable in 2016, and their population is continuing to increase. 

Each panda base ranges in its specialty, from rehabilitation to breeding. Wild pandas that will be reintroduced to the wild or pandas born in captivity that will be released live in bases that are not open to the public. There are four panda bases in and around Chengdu that are open to the public, housing pandas that, for a variety of reasons, are unfit to survive in the wild. Out of the four bases open to the public, only three accept temporary help as part of their Panda Volunteer Program.

A panda holds onto a tree branch in China

Founded to increase funding for research bases, the Panda Volunteer Program can last from a day to a few weeks, though most visitors (including myself) sign up for a day experience. I chose the Wolong National Nature Reserve for my experience because it is home to a “panda kindergarten,” which is a big playpen full of panda toddlers. 

Again, I’m very easily swayed by cute animals that could kill me, but especially by their cubs. 

After filling out a few waivers (see above point) and changing into uniforms, our small group of volunteers and translators were led to a panda enclosure for our first task: cleaning. The pandas were ushered inside, and we volunteers went to work sweeping the outdoor space and scooping up their massive chunks of panda poo, which surprisingly weren’t smelly at all. The most physical aspect came with splitting bamboo for the pandas, aka slamming the giant bamboo stalks against the floor until they split into pieces.

Then we switched places with the pandas and mopped the indoor enclosure while the pandas watched us and munched on their bite-sized bamboo snacks. I loved every second of the manual labor. 

After cleaning for about two hours, we were given two hours to rest and, more importantly, explore the panda base. Although we still had our volunteer uniforms on, we joined the regular visitors to walk through the sanctuary from the other side of the fence. The Wolong panda base has about thirty pandas residing in its enclosures. Pandas become more solitary as they get older, so the adult pandas would mostly be eating and napping in their tree lofts while teenage pandas would share an enclosure with one or two other teenagers who would take turns looking moodily in the distance. 

Two pandas sit on the ground in China

Regular visitors should expect to spend at least three hours at the base; we spent almost our entire two-hour break just cooing over the bumbling panda toddlers in the panda kindergarten. The panda kindergarten is only found at the Wolong panda base and features a large jungle gym for a group of six to eight pandas, each roughly the size of a very round, medium-sized dog. Since pandas, like most bears, do not develop aggression until the age of two or three years old, staff members are in the kindergarten enclosure wrangling lost toddlers and wiping their mouths after they finish their milk. 

They are essentially very specialized babysitters, and I immediately started to look up job openings. 

The panda cubs entertain themselves by dangling from the play structure’s monkey bars, rolling down the enclosure’s hill, slipping down the slides, and giddily falling over each other as they wrestle. Before we knew it, our break was nearly over, and we rushed to quickly cover the rest of the base, which also houses other vulnerable species such as the red panda, leopards, and other endemic mammals, birds, and flora. 

After our break, the second half of the volunteering experience involved a more intimate panda encounter. Before you get too excited—no, you do not get to hold or touch a panda. 

Pandas are bears. Touching a panda was common practice decades ago and, while it wasn’t harmful to the pandas, it also wasn’t helpful and posed a risk to the volunteers, so the reserves discontinued it. However, in lieu of that, volunteers are able to pass snacks to pandas, which is a much safer compromise. The adult pandas were led into their indoor enclosures for snack time and patiently sat next to the snack tray with their paw grabbing onto a bar, safely out of swiping reach. Under the guidance of the staff, the volunteers took turns passing various vegetables to the panda who would grab the vegetable in its mouth, then sit back and use its free hand to gleefully munch on the snack. 

Then we took our own break for lunch. We ate in the staff lunch area and were given a pre-set meal from the cafeteria that was surprisingly delicious. Over the hour-and-a-half lunch, our guide talked more about life in Chengdu and a few cultural experiences to check out once we were back in the city, like the Chuancais Museum, to learn more about the history of Sichuan cuisine. She also thankfully dropped a few shopping recommendations while the sales were still active.

After lunch, we watched a very informative documentary on pandas and the past, present, and future of panda conservation. For most endangered species, creating a successful breeding program was one of the biggest factors in helping boost population numbers. However, for decades, the mystery shrouding panda reproductive habits eluded scientists. The movie discussed the trials and errors of early panda breeding research and the breakthrough findings that would lead to pandas bouncing back from endangerment. 

Contrary to popular belief, pandas are not “ill-equipped” to survive; before human interference, they thrived in the wild for millions of years. They just have very specific breeding requirements that are difficult to replicate in captivity, such as an extremely narrow window for insemination (once a year, for only 36 to 40 hours) and picky breeding partner preferences. 

And honestly, same.

Usually, after the movie, volunteers have another round of enclosure cleaning, but the pandas were surprisingly tidy that day, and additional cleaning wasn’t needed. Instead, we spent the last hour of the volunteer day making “panda cakes” in a kitchen. Panda cakes are small patties full of essential vitamins and minerals that supplement the rest of a panda’s diet. Pandas are technically omnivores, so while a panda’s diet is largely vegetables, in the wild, they also get the rest of their nutrients from small rodents. 

The end of the day came to a close before I knew it, and I and the rest of the group returned our uniforms and received our official panda volunteer certificate. Along with my certificate, I left with two other lifelong souvenirs: perfect poop-shoveling form and a reignited fire for animal conservation. 

Getting there

  • The nearest airport is Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport (CTU) in Chengdu, China. Since not all panda bases are connected via public transit, the most convenient way for travelers to get from the city of Chengdu to one of the panda bases for the volunteering program is to book a tour that includes a private driver, translator if needed, and the program fees. 

How to do it

  • Best time to go: Panda Volunteer Programs are offered year-round, but since most of the volunteer work and panda enclosures are outside, visiting during the shoulder months of March–June and September–November offers the most comfortable temperatures. 
  • Cost: Tours to volunteer at panda bases range from about $200–$400 USD, depending on the base and tour duration, which includes transportation, lunch, uniform rental, and a translator if needed. In addition, panda bases also require a mandatory donation of 700–1000 RMB (about $100–$140 USD). 
  • Safety considerations: Much of the volunteer work is physical and involves full range of motion. Please reach out to the tour operator in advance for any accessibility or mobility accommodations. Although the pandas are in captivity, they are still bears, so follow all safety guidance from staff, guides, and translators. 
  • Tips: Wear comfortable shoes and clothes, as you will be on your feet for most of the day. Avoid wearing perfume, cologne, or fragrant lotion because pandas are very sensitive to smells, and volunteers may be asked to wipe off the fragrance or even be unable to participate. Phone and camera use by the volunteers is prohibited while actively working, but tour guides are more than happy to snap a few photos of you during the program.

Other animal experiences around the world

Kay Kingsman

Kay Kingsman

Freelance Writer

Kay Kingsman is a fiction author and travel writer who prides herself on being a full-time silly goose. When she's not documenting her ill-planned adventures on her blog, The Awkward Traveller, she is indulging in her favorite pastime: singing off-key too loudly in her car. Kay is passionate about making travel more accessible to historically excluded communities and supporting locally led organizations in recovering countries. Along with being the first person to crip walk in Antarctica, Kay has been featured in Forbes, TravelOregon, Viator, Fodor’s, Insider, and more. 


Published June 3, 2024

Last updated June 3, 2024

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