Five caretakers & one panda dead
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2008:
WOLONG NATURE RESERVE– The devastating May 12, 2008
Sichuan earthquake killed five Wolong Panda Reserve staff members and
one giant panda, Mau Mau, a mother of five cubs, whose remains
were found almost a month later. No information was available about
the status of the less closely monitored red pandas who share the
772-square-mile Wolong habitat.
Mau Mau and five other giant pandas were for weeks believed
to have escaped from the heavily damaged Wolong Giant Panda Breeding
Centre–but all the rest were soon found alive and well nearby.
Forty-seven people were killed near the Wolong Panda Reserve,
located 20 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake. Initial
reports relayed by satellite telephone said that all 86 giant pandas
at the reserve were safe, but State Forestry Administration forestry
spokesperson Cao Qingyao soon updated to the state-run Xinhua news
agency that at least three were unaccounted for.
“The Wolong center is deep in the hills north of Chengdu
along a winding two-lane road that reports say was wiped out in
places by the quake. Earlier phone and e-mail contact attempts
failed,” reported Al Guo of the South China Morning Post.
The count of missing pandas increased as surviving staff
assessed the extent of the damage to the facilities. “Of the 35
enclosures at breeding center, 14 were destroyed and 18 were
severely damaged,” Agence France Presse summarized.
Xixi, the next-to-last giant panda who went missing, was
recaptured more than two weeks after the earthquake, when road
repair workers saw the bear playing near a river, the Beijing News
Shanghai Morning Post reporter Wu Fei was at the Wolong Giant
Panda Reserve when the earthquake hit. “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,” Cara Anna of
Associated Press summarized in translation. “The rescue was
complicated because some of the pandas were in what the Chinese call
their ‘falling in love period,’ being particularly excitable and
prone to attack, reserve researcher Heng Yi told Wu.”
“It was surreal. I was spinning around, trying to gain my
footing, and as I looked up, I saw a panda trying to do the same
thing,” visitor Robert Litwak, 55, told Agence France-Presse.
“The reserve’s location in a damp, narrow valley several
hours’ drive from the capital of Sichuan province made it an easy
target during the quake, which tossed down boulders the size of cars.
Most of the staffers, tourists and pandas were outside at the time,”
“The pandas were agitated and pacing,” visitor Pamela
Capito, 60, told Yardley of The New York Times. “When the
earthquake hit, we realized they sensed it coming.”
Elaborated Times of London Pengzhou correspondent Jane
Mccartney, “British tourist Judy Ling Wong was having her photo
taken cuddling one of the babies. The earth erupted around her. As
she ran from the nursery, keepers grabbed the cub back. In their
playground and pens, adult pandas were pacing in panic as trees
tumbled down hillsides. When the earth settled, the visitors and
panda keepers realised that the bridge that was their only escape had
crumbled into the river that rushed along the bottom of the valley.
The keepers improvised a new crossing, lashing together bamboo
“Once Ms. Wong and her fellow British tourists had been
helped across, the keepers “carried the babies one by one over the
bridge,” Wong recounted. “You can imagine how difficult and
dangerous it was to carry those squirming cubs with the river
underneath. As soon as they were across, they ran with each one to
The 14 cubs were placed in an undamaged wooden ticket booth,
Mccartney wrote. “The entire booth, cubs inside, was then moved up
the valley to a wider patch of flat ground where they would be in
less danger from aftershocks. Two armed guards were deployed outside
the ticket booth to protect these tiny national symbols.”
Wrote Guo of the South China Morning Post, “To release some
pandas and save smaller ones was a decision based purely on their
weight– no one was strong enough to carry a panda weighing more than
100 kilograms (200 pounds).”
Thirty-one British tourists and 12 Americans were airlifted
from Wolong to Chengdu by helicopter.
“One-year-old Xinnier was the only panda injured amid the
chaos after the quake,” Guo wrote. “She stepped on a pile of glass
and cut her right foot. Qian Feng, from the Third Military Hospital
in Chongqing, who arrived at Wolong on May 16, was just in time to
treat the cub.”
Said Qian, “It’s no different from taking care of a human
foot. You just make sure no infection occurs.” Caretakers fed
Xinnier to distract her while Qian worked. “Whenever the food was
finished, Xinnier would start watching her wounds,” Qian added.
“So they had to feed her non-stop to squeeze me some operating time.”
But panda food was soon scarce.
Wolong Nature Reserve deputy chief Wang Pengyan told Guardian
Beijing correspondent Tania Branigan that, “Many buildings have
collapsed or are unsafe, a new road to the center is unusable, and
vast areas of bamboo,” which provide food for the Wolong pandas,
“have been destroyed.”
The State Forestry Association flew five tons of bamboo to
Wolong among the first cargoes of emergency supplies.
Eight two-year-old pandas were already slated for exhibit in
Beijing for six months overlapping the 2008 Olympic Games, due to
start on August 8. The move became an evacuation. The pandas who
were sent to Beijing had resumed eating normally before they were
airlifted out, Wang said.
The bamboo shortage was relieved by moving as many pandas as
possible to other sites, including the Chengdu breeding center,
located across the city from the Animals Asia Foundation sanctuary
for Asiatic black bears rescued from bile farms. The Chengdu center
already housed 63 giant pandas.
Restoring the Wolong facilities, still occupied by 47 giant
pandas, might take “10 or 20 years,” Wang estimated.
“It’s better to move, I think,” Wolong Giant Panda Reserve
director Zhang Hemin told Anna of Associated Press. “I’m worrying
about secondary disasters, such as severe aftershocks.”
The Wolong reserve was proclaimed in 1963. The breeding
center was built in 1983 to house just 10 pandas, recalled Xinhua
News Agency editor Mu Xuequan. The nearby Wuyipeng Lesser Panda
Semi-Natural Center was originally part of the giant panda breeding
center, but was given to red pandas after the giant panda population
Post-quake, Wolong may become chiefly a wild panda
monitoring center. “Long before the quake, researchers at Wolong
had been placing hidden cameras throughout the reserve to monitor
pandas,” reported New York Times China correspondent Jim Yardley.
“Now that footage will be used to help assess the impact of the
disaster.” But patrols of the reserve and a planned wild panda
census were indefinitely suspended while all hands coped with the
“Even before the earthquake, authorities were considering
nearby sites for a new panda centre,” Mu Xuequan said. “Li Desheng,
deputy director of the breeding centre, had said that the present
site faced the risk of flooding and landslides.”
Evacuating the pandas remaining at the Wolong breeding center
was delayed by damage to other panda facilities. China Wildlife
Conserv-ation Association secretary general Yang Baijin “said many
Sichuan panda reserves had been affected,” Branigan of the Guardian
Eight giant pandas were safe at a preserve in Ya’an, for
example, “about an hour’s drive west of Chengdu,” said Guo of the
South China Morning Post, but the facility had limited capacity to
take in more.
About 1,590 giant pandas remain in the wild, wrote Mu Xuequan,
75% of them in Sichuan, 17% in Shaanxi, and 7% in Gansu. Red
pandas are more numerous and more broadly distributed, but are also
recognized as a threatened species.