Captive Pandas Bouncing Back After Quake

Workers at the Wolong Nature Reserve are attempting to soothe the 14 baby pandas who were noticeably traumatized during the May 12 earthquake in China.Video: Jill Drew/The Washington PostEditor: Jonathan Forsythe/
By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 15, 2008

WOLONG NATURE RESERVE, China -- The man traces the panda's paw with his finger as she laps milky formula from a metal bowl. He strokes her head and tries to wipe her snout when she finishes, but she bats his hand away and curls into a forward roll, hiding her face. Then she turns to nip his boots, beginning a favorite game of tug of war.

Watching Qing Qing play with her keeper, Li Guo, it's easy to forget the massive earthquake whose epicenter was a few miles from this panda research center in a remote area of Sichuan province. Just a month ago, the 16-month-old cub had clung in panic to Li's chest after another keeper plucked her from the roof of her enclosure, which was shaking from being smashed by boulders the size of trucks.

But one glance up the mountain slopes is sufficient reminder. Small rockslides continue to rain down on the panda enclosures sandwiched in the narrow valley, as aftershocks and heavy rains shake loose layer after layer of raw earth, exposed in wide gashes on the mountain face by the initial 7.9-magnitude quake.

While geologists survey the valley to pinpoint a more stable site on which to rebuild the world's best-known panda tourist and research center, the keepers are focused on protecting the animals and easing their trauma. The keepers use a kind of touch therapy to comfort the bears, which are seen as national treasures in China and a symbol of Chinese goodwill abroad.

Those efforts are working. The 47 giant pandas currently living here are regaining their appetites and returning to active play. The sound of a car or the shaking of an aftershock no longer sends them bolting in fright. Rather, Qing Qing is like many others as she grabs a handful of bamboo and flops onto her back to munch peacefully, belly to the sun.

"She was very nervous after the earthquake," Li said. "She didn't like to be touched. She still is not as active as before the earthquake, but each day is better than the next."

Zhang Hemin, director of the Wolong Nature Reserve Administration, has devoted the past 25 years to protecting pandas. Now he is in charge of both the panda research center and the 4,500 people who live in the Wolong area and need to be resettled within the reserve's boundaries. The community was lucky; although many structures were left unsafe, the loss of life was limited. Zhang hopes that as Wolong rebuilds, it will become a model of environmental protection and sustainable development that will be the pride of China.

"In the 1980s, China was poor," Zhang said in an interview in a relief tent in downtown Wolong, where he is living with his staff. "When we said, 'Protect the pandas, protect the environment,' people did not understand. But today, environmental protection is deep in people's minds."

Protecting the pandas takes hard work and courage these days. Just getting enough bamboo, which makes up more than 90 percent of a panda's diet, is a major challenge.

The breeding center had always trucked in food for its captive pandas, leaving the naturally growing bamboo in the 500,000-acre reserve for the 150 wild pandas that roam its slopes. It used to take a couple of hours to drive the bamboo to Wolong, but the earthquake destroyed that road. Now, a driver hauling 3 1/2 tons of bamboo must navigate his refrigerated tractor-trailer over a treacherous road that crosses two mountain passes and is frequented by mountain goats and yaks. The bamboo run takes nine hours on a good day when the rain isn't heavy.

Rockslides remain a danger. On May 17, five days after the quake, a slide smashed the fence of a panda enclosure, and its resident, Xi Xi, fled. Zhou Minghua, who has been a panda keeper for 26 years, found her missing the next morning.

"It was so painful, I cannot describe the feeling," he said. "The only thing I can do is search."

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