When I arrived in China for the first time, I thought I was prepared for how urbanized, westernized and wealthy the country would be. But I wasn’t. Driving in from the airport in Beijing, luxury sedans were flying past us on the 10-lane expressway into the heart of the giant metropolis. Motorcycles whizzed between the cars, their drivers’ faces covered with breathing masks. New high-rise towers went on for miles, rising from the flat plain like a futuristic forest of gleaming steel and glass. Coal-fired power plants popped up intermittently, with wires and cables snaking off into the distance to provide energy for the millions upon millions of people living in greater Beijing. On the boulevard outside our 5-star hotel, elegant boutiques bore familiar names—Chanel, Tiffany, Fendi, Ferragamo. Over everything hung a hazy blanket of smog.
But soon, our small group of nature travelers would leave the urban crush far behind for a completely different take on China, one that few visitors get to see. It’s China’s wild side, and in our case, it meant the Minshan Mountains of Sichuan province, northwest of Chengdu. It’s a region of lushly forested peaks, deep gorges, rushing rivers and clear air. Rare wild animals, found nowhere else on Earth, thrive in a network of remote nature reserves—the most famous among them, of course, is the giant panda.
And now, virtual travelers will get a peek at this little-known Chinese realm in Disneynature’s latest film, “Born in China,” in honor of Earth Day.
The latest film from Disneynature premieres on Friday, April 21. When you head to theaters across North America to see it during opening week (April 21-27), China’s wildlife will benefit: for every ticket sold, Disneynature will make a donation to World Wildlife Fund. WWF was the first international conservation organization to work in China at the invitation of the Chinese government to protect wildlife, including the giant panda, which also served as the inspiration behind WWF’s iconic logo.
“Born in China” follows the adventures of three animal families—the majestic panda, the savvy golden monkey and the elusive snow leopard. Featuring exhilarating footage, the film navigates China’s vast wild terrain on the wings of a red-crowned crane as it soars over snowbound mountains and bamboo forests. Intimate imagery of animal babies will delight audiences, as Disneynature brings us closer to these rare family moments.
Thanks to decades-long efforts by WWF and the Chinese government to preserve and rehabilitate habitat, China’s endemic wildlife is making progress toward a more sustainable future. In fact, the giant panda was recently upgraded from “Endangered” to “Vulnerable” on the global list of species at risk of extinction.
While it’s still difficult to sight pandas in the wild, panda lovers can enjoy seeing them up close at China’s famous panda research bases. Nat Hab’s Wild Side of China tour visits three different panda centers in Sichuan, with an exclusive opportunity to spend a day volunteering in their care alongside dedicated keepers.
This unique nature odyssey also includes a real-life immersion in some of the remote places featured in Disneynature’s film, including the Jiuzhai Valley on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Jiuzhaigou National Park is a national treasure, famed for its turquoise karst lakes connected by streams and waterfalls that pour in frothy plumes over terraced ledges.
The trip also visits a virtually unknown 100,000-acre nature sanctuary encompassing a densely forested ecosystem that’s among the most diverse and intact in Asia. Gentle hikes led by a naturalist Expedition Leader offer vistas of waterfalls, boulder-strewn gorges and mist-shrouded limestone peaks.
This national reserve is home to healthy populations of some of the world’s most endangered and vulnerable wildlife, including at least 60 giant pandas, 1,000 golden monkeys and 1,200 takin—a large, shaggy goat-antelope—among its 430 different mammal species. Nat Hab’s special permit to enter core areas of the reserve offers a chance to search for the giant panda: these bamboo forests are prime habitat, and while visitors may not spot one of these highly elusive bears in the heavy underbrush, they might see signs of their presence. The reserve also shelters Tibetan and rhesus macaques, musk deer, muntjac, serow, wild boar, blue sheep, and endangered moon bears and red pandas. Birdwatching is superb, with more than 150 species, supreme among them the showy golden pheasant.
For Earth Day, support WWF’s conservation efforts to protect wild pandas and snow leopards by seeing “Born in China,” and buoy your heart as you witness some of the world’s most rare and precious species flourishing in the Chinese wilds.
Then, when you’re ready to come see China’s pandas for yourself, Nat Hab is ready to take you!