Polar Chengdu : Chengdu Diary Polar bears join pandas in Chengdu.

Polar Chengdu


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Yesterday, we were driving south out of Chengdu, looking at signs of this city's explosive growth. Gleaming high-priced high-rises to house the newly rich. A dramatic high-tech center: a football-shaped glass building flanked by two curved orange towers. Stunning new municipal government buildings that are a far cry from grim, old-style socialist architecture. These are angular structures, encased in decorative metal webs.

And then, I saw something that really made me blink: a long turquoise sign surrounding a site still under development, with photos of shaggy polar bears, and the words "Chengdu Polar Ocean World." Chengdu? Polar? Ocean?

I did a quick Google search, and it's true. By next May, Chengdu is slated to boast a polar ocean themed resort -- a $171 million dollar investment -- that will be home to polar bears, penguins, beluga whales, and more. It will be a kind of polar sister to a Polar Ocean World that's drawing crowds in Qingdao, in eastern China.

Hands-on experience with whale in China. hide caption

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Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf holding a panda at the Chengdu center in 2006. I bet he didn't have to pay. ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images hide caption

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ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Now, I know that there are polar bears swimming around in unlikely places -- the Central Park Zoo, for example. But I've spent the last week hearing about devastating environmental destruction in China, about constant loss of habitat, about a threatened giant panda population in the wild. Why bring another threatened species to a place where there are so many endangered species already?

But there's money to be made. If you pay $150 at the panda base here in Chengdu, you can hold a baby panda. The staff has qualms about whether this is wise, but it's a huge money-maker, and they rely on the funds.

Threatened polar bears -- threatened panda bears -- I guess they're all fair game in the new China.