An international rescue mission has agreed to set up special breeding grounds for giant pandas in the mountainous southwest China to study the world-renowned but endangered animal and possibly mass produce a new generation.
Peter Scott, founder of the World Wildlife Fund, who has just returned from a rare visit to the pandas' natural habitat, said Chinese and foreign scientists plan to stock the project by capturing young pandas or using female pandas to lure adult male pandas.
They want to find ways to accelerate the creatures' leisurely and indifferent mating habits before they become extinct.
More than 10 percent of all giant pandas were killed in 1975 and 1976 by starvation or earthquake, the Chinese disclosed recently, a considerable blow to a panda population now estimated at only a thousand animals, most of them in 10 southwest China reserves. Scott said Chinese in the area fear that shortages of arrow bamboo, because of its once-a-century blooming and its natural death, which starved the pandas in some reserves, could spread to others.
The unusual speed with which Peking has approved the project indicates the great urgency it attaches to the rescue effort.
Scott said the project, to be funded by China and the World Wildlife Fund, hopes to gather about 14 pandas in special pens in the Wolong Reserve and experiment with hormonal drugs and breeding cycle techniques that might increase their fertility.
"The practical value of breeding pandas on a production line would be a good thing for the pandas, a good thing for conservation, a good thing for the World Wildlife Fund, which uses the pandas as its symbol, and a good thing for the Chinese."
Peking has won much international good will by donating the bear-like white-and-black spotted creatures to foreign zoos, including the National Zoo in Washington. Despite intense efforts by zookeepers, however, no pandas in foreign captivity have ever reproduced.
George B. Schaller, conservation director of the New York Zoological Society and the principal foreign scientist on the panda project, and Scott and World Wildlife Fund liaison offer Nancy Nash have just returned from an expedition to the Wolong Reserve in Sichuan Province. They were the first foreigners allowed to visit the area since 1949.
The group found no wild pandas during five days of hikes through their natural grounds, although they did see several panda droppings.
Schaller said he and his wife plan to move to the Wolong Reserve, about 150 miles west of Sichuan's capital, Cheng-du, late this year. Construction of the special breeding grounds is expected to begin in 1981 and be completed in 1983.