Sixteen panda lovers from around the world are roughing it out in the wildness of China’s Sichuan province.
They are competing for three positions as panda ambassadors or “Pambassadors”, in a search jointly organised by Chengdu Panda base and WildAid.
The three winners will be chosen after a week in the wilderness, for what they would call their dream job of working with giant pandas.
Part of the job involves hiking along precarious mountain trails and enduring harsh weather.
Samuel Lam, a Pambassador finalist from Singapore, said: “I have done some camping before in Singapore in my basic military training during the field camp. But it is really different here because in Singapore, it is really hot and you get heat rash…But here, it is really cold…I can’t feel my hands and feet.”
Despite these conditions, the role of a Pambassador is considered a dream job for these panda lovers.
Pitching a tent is one of the many wilderness survival skills contestants will have to learn. Over five days and four nights, participants will be camping out in the wild, without access to any electricity, internet or mobile phone signal. There are also no toilet or shower facilities in the vicinity.
That is just the first step.
Participants venture deep into the mountains, trekking slopes on the trail of wild giant pandas.
Wang Fen, a Pambassador finalist from China, said: “My entire body is aching and sore, especially my feet. We are crossing mountains and rivers.”
They watch for signs of any panda activity – marks such as paw prints and even panda waste.
The animals are so rare and so easily scared that these panda lovers consider themselves lucky to be able to find panda poop.
Ylenia Vimercati, a Pambassador finalist from Italy, said: “It is kind of interesting because it proves that these animals live in this area.”
Ashley Jaeger, a Pambassador finalist from the United States, said: “Being out in the wild and actually knowing we are in the giant pandas’ habitat is really sort of magical…”
Competitors got a first-hand account of how the 2008 earthquake destroyed about 30 per cent of a nature reserve in Longxi-Hongkou.
The bamboo has since been replanted, but challenges remain.
Reaching the pandas’ natural habitat has become more dangerous because of landslides, and there still no power supply or mobile phone reception.
Conservationists work for weeks, or months, in isolation because communication lines were cut.
Liu Ji Fu, who works at the Longchi Conservation Station, said: “It is best if we can have some basic infrastructure in the mountains so that staff can have some entertainment. Communication with the outside world will let us work with a peace of mind.”
The three winners will get to become Chengdu Pambassadors for a year, along with US$20,000 and an opportunity to join in the effort to promote panda conservation.