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The air in Tangjiahe Nature Reserve feels clean and invigorating. Turbulent rivers thunder down narrow gorges, and waterfalls pour from the mist-clad slopes of the Minshan Mountains. Beneath the mosaic of mixed forest that cloaks the reserve is a lush understory of arrow bamboo, and we are walking through it on a barely discernible path.
We hear a rustling noise and are on alert. This is prime giant panda habitat, one of the largest sanctuaries in China. At least 60 pandas—out of an estimated population of 1,600 in the wild—are known to inhabit the reserve’s verdant recesses. The group is both hushed and vibrating with energy, hoping to catch a glimpse.
But instead of a panda, the screech that rockets through the trees reveals a Tibetan macaque. Still, our small group of nine travelers shares a sense of wonder knowing we are among the few visitors ever to stand in this remote sector of the panda’s vanishing wild homeland.
Tangjiahe is one of seven reserves in Sichuan that make up the largest remaining contiguous habitat for the giant panda. Its nearly 100,000 acres shelter an astonishing wealth of plant species and a host of rare and endemic wildlife that includes red pandas, clouded leopards and more than 1,000 golden snub-nosed monkeys. On our trip, we see golden pheasants, Chinese gorals, a goat-like mammal called a serow and numerous shaggy goat-antelopes called takins.
So even without the gift of sighting a wild panda this time, this wilderness enclave makes us all want to return and discover more of China’s “secret” natural side.