SHANGHAI, China (AP) — Giant pandas in western China could be at risk of starvation because the bamboo plants that they eat are beginning to die off in a cycle that happens about every 60 years, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Sunday.
Workers at the Baishuijiang State Nature Preserve in the northwestern province of Gansu plan to monitor the 102 pandas in the preserve for signs of hunger, according to Xinhua.
Threatened pandas will be moved to areas that still have bamboo, with special attention given to older, feeble animals, it said, citing Zhang Kerong, the preserve’s director.
Pandas derive most of their nutrition from arrow bamboo and can starve once the plant enters its dying-off stage. The stage begins when the bamboo forms flowers, after which the pandas refuse to eat it. The bamboo then starts to produce seeds before dying.
Blooming happens about once every 60 years, with a new crop taking 10 years to mature. However, the cycle seems to run along different schedules in different places and an earlier mass die-off of bamboo in the 1980s caused the deaths of about 250 pandas, Xinhua said.
Xinhua said some bamboo also has started blooming in Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces, home to the rest of China’s estimated 1,590 wild pandas.
Flowering bamboo now covers more than 17,300 acres of the 544,000-acre preserve, Xinhua said. It said 22 pandas living in the preserve’s Bikou and Rangshuihe areas were directly threatened with starvation.
Zhang said rangers would patrol for ailing animals and rescue those in need. Local villagers also have been told not to drive away or harm pandas if they enter inhabited areas looking for food.
China regards the panda as an unofficial national mascot, but the animal’s limited diet is just one factor threatening its survival. Panda numbers have declined as its habitat has fallen to farming and development, and the animal’s low fertility rate causes it to reproduce at an agonizingly slow rate.
Chinese zoologists have improved the birth rate of giant pandas in captivity through artificial insemination. The country also has launched a project to clone the animal as a way of boosting its numbers.