Rebuilding China’s Panda Program

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A 25-day-old panda at the Ya An panda center in Sichuan

A 25-day-old panda at the Ya An panda center in Sichuan

One of the dramatic tales to come out of this spring’s Sichuan earthquake was the fate of the pandas. The China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda was near the epicenter of the magnitude 8.0 quake, and the home of China’s panda recovery efforts was badly damaged and blocked from the outside world for several days. Recently my colleague Lin Yang and I visited the panda center outside the Sichuan town of Ya An, now home to many of the pandas that were rescued from Wolong. Huang Yan, deputy head of engineering and the top official at Wolong immediately after the May 12 earthquake, told us that the program was slowly recovering.

When the quake hit, the priority was to ensure the safety of the 31 tourists who were trapped at the center, Huang said. Then came the task of saving the 64 black and white bamboo eaters who lived at Wolong. It was not easy. The photos of workers rescuing the pandas reinforce the notion that they aren’t the most survival-minded of creatures. As they were hauled to safety, they look more like naughty children being dragged from the dinner table. Perhaps it was the shock. Huang says that nearly half of Wolong’s 32 enclosures collapsed, burying 24 pandas and freeing six more who fled for the surrounding forest. One scrambled up a tree and refused to come down even when it was offered apples, a favorite treat. “We had to climb up and carry it down,” says Huang.

One of the buried pandas, nine-year-old Mao Mao, was killed in the earthquake. She was buried at Wolong in June. The surviving pandas appeared traumatized and had difficulty eating. “After a couple of weeks they began returning to normal,” Huang says. “Some were faster and some were slower. We don’t know if there will be long-term effects.” Equally unknown, says Huang, is the fate of the 1,500-3,000 pandas living in the wild. In captivity at least the number of pandas is slowly growing. At Ya An one 25-day-old cub—too young to be given a name—was sleeping in an incubator next to a glass window, gently twitching as if dreaming.

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