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Zoos Reach Out To Panda Facility

The town of Yingxiu, in Wenchuan county, China, was close to the epicenter of the earthquake and was completely destroyed. The sides of the mountains used to be filled with trees, but landslides have made them mostly barren.

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By Michael Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 31, 2008

The National Zoo and three other zoos in the United States that have giant pandas are launching an effort to raise money for colleagues in an earthquake-ravaged section of China that is home to a renowned panda facility.

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The Wolong National Nature Reserve, in Sichuan province, is a short distance from the epicenter of the earthquake that struck May 12. National Zoo officials said they think five workers at the reserve died in the disaster.

Two of the roughly 50 pandas at the reserve's breeding center escaped, although one was found, a zoo official said. There was extensive damage in the region, and staff members are living in tents, the zoo's Web site said. An appeal for donations is posted on the Web site at http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/GiantPandas.

The Wolong reserve is the birthplace of National Zoo pandas Mei Xiang, a female, and Tian Tian, a male. They are the parents of Tai Shan, who was born at the zoo in 2005. Zoo officials are monitoring Mei Xiang to see whether she is pregnant.

There are strong professional ties among panda experts in both countries, zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said, and a representative of the National Zoo had been scheduled to visit the reserve this month.

"Everyone who knows about giant pandas in the field knows about the Wolong National Nature Reserve," said David Wildt, head of the zoo's Center for Species Survival, who was to have made the trip.

The trip was postponed, but the National Zoo is joining zoos in Atlanta, Memphis and San Diego to raise money to assist Chinese colleagues, Baker-Masson said.

"We can wire them money, and it can be immediate, and it can go right to the staff at Wolong," she said.

"Because of our established partnership, we have a mechanism to deliver the funds quickly, expeditiously, to the people who need them now."

The zoo pays China $1 million a year for the loan of the two adults under a 10-year agreement. The pandas arrived in 2000. The zoo has also paid $600,000 for Tai Shan's two-year stay. He is to be returned to China next year for breeding purposes.

Wildt said that of the 35 enclosures at the reserve's breeding center, 14 were destroyed and 18 were severely damaged.

He said that about five days after the earthquake, the zoo got an e-mail from the Wolong facility's director, Zhang Hemin, saying: "We need your help."

"Our first concern was, of course, for our friends and colleagues," Wildt said. "My thought was, if our colleagues are okay, the giant pandas will be okay. We've worked with these people very, very closely.

"We really think that probably one of the greatest needs up there is going to be for temporary shelters," he said. "And we're talking more than tents. This is going to be a long-term process. It's beautiful country, but it gets wet and cold."

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