The panda that came to dinnerShaanxi, China: At 1,400 metres above sea level, the Quinling Mountains of southern Shaanxi province are home to about a quarter of the world's 1,000 remaining giant pandas. They live in caves hidden among dense bamboo forests on the southerly slopes and their survival is very much part of life for the nearby village of Banqiao.
Villagers from this little community of 40 dwellings often encounter pandas as they go about their daily work in the fields and some of them help the animals when they feel they are distressed or in difficulties. One such is Wang Wenshu, who served as a part-time guide for a Beijing University expedition searching for giant pandas and has now taken responsibility for a panda family.
Wang Wenshu befriended a female panda he named Jiaojiao when she had her first cub in 1993. Every day he trekked five kilometres along mountainous paths to visit mother and cub, bringing them fresh and tender bamboo shoots, steamed corn bread and candies.
The little furry pandas are really cute, he says, describing with pride what it feels like to hold one of the world's rarest animals in one's arms. Gentle Jiaojiao is now 15 years and, with help from Wang Wenshu, she has three male cubs and one female.
Wang's neighbours also take seriously the privilege of living near a panda community. When a three-year-old male panda was found on a winter's day with one of his legs broken, farmer Liu Guozhen organized a rescue party that carried the animal back to the village on a quilt-covered stretcher. For the next eight weeks, more than 100 villagers took turns nursing the panda, named Dongdong feeding him sweet porridge, potatoes, cabbage, sugar cane, and apples. Children climbed the mountains to collect Dongdong's favourite diet of fresh leaves and tender shoots from the bamboo.
Longlong is another panda rescued by Banqiao villagers when Liao Changfa and his son found her suffering breathing difficulties. They pulled the gasping panda back to their home in a cart and villagers helped to clean out a room for her where she was nursed and given medicine, powdered milk, and fresh bamboo leaves for six weeks. When the time came for Longlong to return to the wild, she was reluctant to leave the village. She kept looking back and later made several secretive visits.
Locals regard the giant panda as a mascot, says village head Zhang Zeguo, My fellow villagers have learned from their ancestors that hunters never lift a hand against the panda, or their `lovely child' as it is known.
As a result, three years ago Banqiao and its surrounding mountain forests was designated part of the Changqing National Nature Reserve. Hunting is prohibited in the reserve, but that brings farming problems to the locals who have to put up with damage to their crops by wild boars and pheasants.
However, no pandas have been injured or died of cold or hunger over the past two decades, according to an official of the nature reserve.
Pandas are smart, the official said. When hungry or ill, they will lie on the road or by the river so that passers-by will easily spot them. Sometimes they'll just show up at the doors of some villagers.
One day recently a panda named Maomao pushed open the door of the house of Gu Yingming, head of a neighboring village, and dropped in. Gu's mother brought sliced ham for this honoured guest, then Maomao sniffed a jar of honey in the corner of the house. After his rich dinner, panda settled down to sleep in Gu's cattle pen.
Next day Maomao visited Wang Degang's home for another feast. After eating and drinking his fill, he sat beside the kang a heated brick bed to keep warm. Family members sat around Maomao and tried to amuse him. The panda responded by making noises of contentment.
The pandas have proved costly neighbours for Banqiao. The villagers used to enjoy incomes higher than the national average, but since logging, hunting and bamboo cutting were banned when the region became a nature reserve, the average villager's income has dropped by at least a third. They are entitled to government compensation, but there have been bureaucratic delays. Nevertheless, the villagers regard it as their obligation to protect the pandas. The story of Banqiao reassures China's leading giant panda specialist, Professor Pan Wenshi, that humans and these beautiful animals can live together in harmony. He says: Giant pandas in the Qinling Range are the wild species that Chinese scientists are most likely to be successful in rescuing.
*Huang Yan and Ma Yong are freelance writers for the China Features & Information Service.