The first panda sighting happens soon after visitors step off the plane here, on the way to baggage claim.

Stuffed pandas pose on AstroTurf at the airport, their beady plastic eyes circled in black. Later, visitors will spot pandas staring back from store marquees and taxicab decals all over this metropolitan region of 14 million in southwestern China.

Animal keeper Stacey Tabellario holds Bei Bei, the National Zoo's newest panda and offspring of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. Photo / AP
Animal keeper Stacey Tabellario holds Bei Bei, the National Zoo's newest panda and offspring of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. Photo / AP

Chengdu is a booming high-tech hub but fiery cuisine - and pandas - came first.

The Smithsonian's National Zoo has four of the animals, including its newest addition, Bei Bei, who made his public debut yesterday. In China, pandas come by the dozen, available for easy viewing. Sort of.

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Seeing them means taking a road trip. And the highway west through Sichuan province goes from smooth to something else.

At the end of this rough road is Wolong, where the pandas roam. But China's original panda research centre is mostly closed and returning to nature after being severely damaged by an earthquake in May 2008.

A new panda spread just down the road in Gengda, still within the Wolong Nature Reserve, has been built for the masses.

Wide paths meander among panda yards, and interpretive centres stand ready to house exhibits. There are buildings for panda research and care.

The pandas have arrived at the new Gengda centre, too. Some seem restless, as if waiting for visitors to come and gawk.

Giant Panda Research Breeding Base on the northern edge of the city of Chengdu, China. Photo / Supplied
Giant Panda Research Breeding Base on the northern edge of the city of Chengdu, China. Photo / Supplied

The paradox is that for all of China's success in nurturing a captive panda population, it remains captive. The Government has tried reintroducing pandas to the wild for years with mixed success.

It's a problem of adaptation and not-so-nice pandas that fight newcomers, says Wu Daifu, who oversees animal training at the original centre.

"We have encountered a lot of difficulties," he says. "For example, how to train the pandas. What we can do is change the environment of the pandas, let them adapt to the wild step by step."

Then there are humans.

Visitors take souvenir photographs of Xing Xing, formerly known as Fu Wa, one of the two giant pandas from China at the Giant Panda Conservation Center at the National Zoo. Photo / AP
Visitors take souvenir photographs of Xing Xing, formerly known as Fu Wa, one of the two giant pandas from China at the Giant Panda Conservation Center at the National Zoo. Photo / AP

"The challenge I think our wild giant pandas face ... is a problem of development," says Zhang Hemin, director of the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda, which established the Wolong and the Hetaoping facilities. He's known as "Papa Panda"for his role in overseeing the nation's brood.

"There are many highways, hydroelectric power stations being built. They separate the panda's habitat."

Estimates put the country's wild panda population at more than 1800; a new count has 422 living in captivity.

-Bloomberg