May 29, 2008

Giant Pandas Look for New Home After Quake

After the Wolong Giant Panda Reserve received a damaging blow from the recent deadly earthquake in China, officials are now seeking a new home for the bears.

"It's better to move, I think," said Zhang Hemin, the chief of the Wolong Giant Panda Reserve.

The Wolong reserve is just 20 miles from the epicenter of the May 12 quake, which has killed more than 68,000 people, including five reserve staff members.

Most of the reserve staff members were not on-site during the 7.9-magnitude quake.

"What I'm worrying about are secondary disasters, such as severe aftershocks," Zhang said. "The road is easily blocked by rocks falling from the mountain. There would be no way to get the food in."

Meanwhile, one panda is still missing, and Chinese government officials were prompted to send an emergency food shipment of about 5 tons of bamboo for the remaining 47 pandas at the reserve.

According to an article by the only journalist at the reserve during the quake, Shanghai Morning Post's Wu Fei, some pandas froze and looked at the sky, not moving even when their handlers tried to get them going.

Other handlers picked up baby pandas by the scruff of their necks, one in each hand, and ran, Wu said in his article published May 18.

Pandas were in their so-called "falling in love period" when the quake hit, and therefore became disturbed, making rescue attempts more challenging.

Meanwhile, any move of the Wolong reserve has to wait for a damage assessment by geologists, Zhang said.

China's largest panda reserve has been forced to cancel its patrols and annual panda census because of aftershocks and blocked roads, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.

"We've not been able to get into the heart of the forests to check if the giant pandas are OK," Huang Huali, deputy director of the Baishuijiang Nature Reserve Administration, told Xinhua.

The reserve is in Sichuan and neighboring Gansu province and is about 62 miles from the quake's epicenter.

About 1,590 pandas are living in the wild, mostly in Sichuan and the western province of Shaanxi. An additional 180 have been bred in captivity in hopes of increasing the species' chances of survival.