Saturday, May 24, 2008

Panda Finds Way Home to Reserve After China Quake

Christine Dell'Amore
National Geographic News

May 20, 2008
A captive adult giant panda that had disappeared during the May 12 earthquake has returned home, but two of the rare animals are still unaccounted for, China's state media agency reported today.

Officials are optimistic about the survival of the two missing pandas, which live at the Wolong National Nature Reserve in central China.

The reserve is located 18 miles (29 kilometers) from the epicenter of the massive temblor that ripped through mountainous Sichuan Province. (See photos of the quake's devastation.)

The panda's homing instinct is not unusual, Marc Brody, president of the U.S.-China Environmental Fund (USCEF), told National Geographic News.

"There's a history of captive pandas returning to the breeding center after escaping for one reason or another," he said.

Brody has received funding from the National Geographic Society for panda conservation research. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

"One can hope that the other two pandas will return in the near future, or perhaps better yet, find their way in the wild," Brody said.

Chinese forestry official Xiong Beirong also told China's Xinhua news agency that the animals "were likely to be alive" because they were adults.

(Watch a video of Wolong pandas being evacuated after the quake.)

Damaged Shelters

Initial reports last week indicated that the 86 captive adult pandas at the reserve were unharmed. The reserve's breeding center is considered crucial to the endangered animals' survival as a species.

But closer examination of the facility revealed that three pandas were unaccounted for.
Xinhua also reported that the magnitude 8 quake—the worst in three decades in China—had toppled all 32 panda houses.
Brody—who has been in contact with USCEF staff who survived the quake—said the temblor did damage to some panda "shelters," or small buildings inside each enclosure.

But he clarified that the panda pens and yards are still mostly intact, and the panda center is still operational, he said.

The Wolong personnel still caring for the pandas in the devastated area are putting their lives in danger, Brody emphasized.

Landslides due to aftershocks and heavy rains are still a threat on mountainsides surrounding the panda center. A massive landslide has already blocked off the entrance to the center, forcing staff to use ladders to climb in and out, Brody added.

The local government in Wolong has ensured the reserve's pandas have supplies and that its staff is receiving sufficient food and relief tents, Brody added.

Tense Situation

Relief efforts have been hindered in the farther reaches of the 772-square-mile (2,000-square-kilometer) reserve, where power and phones lines are still down and landslides have wiped out the area's only highway.

Ninety percent of homes in parts of the reserve have been leveled, Brody said.

In the provincial capital of Chengdu, where Brody's USCEF staff were evacuated, the mood is tense, according to an email sent to Brody by staff member Hu Guolin.

For the second straight night, the local government has asked its citizens not to sleep inside for fear of a major aftershock.

"Most of the citizen[s] [are] living outdoor[s]," Hu wrote. "Nobody is willing to stay inside."

"I'm also worr[ied] there will be a big earthquake again nearby Chengdu."