The giant panda, whose threatened extinction inspired an international rescue mission in China, appears to be making a comeback.
After years of subjecting the cuddly, black-and-white creatures to everything from radio tracers to artificial insemination in the hope of boosting their declining numbers, Chinese scientists proclaimed today that the panda population "has stopped declining."
Although that may sound like a modest breakthrough, it should hearten panda lovers who were dismayed to learn that more than 10 percent of the world's remaining 1,000 pandas perished since 1975 because of starvation and earthquakes.
The panda, whose selective mating habits are well known, also is a picky eater, partial to a type of bamboo that blossoms only once every century.
Zoologists who had little hope of changing the romantic and eating habits of a mammal whose history dates back at least 500,000 years predicted that the panda would soon go the way of the dinosaur.
The World Wildlife Fund, which uses the panda as its symbol, was not as willing to write the animal's obituary. Last May the fund sent a team of experts to the moist, mountainous habitat of the world's last pandas in southwest China.
There, they joined Chinese scientists at the largest of 10 panda preserves in Sichuan Province, where researchers study the behavior of pandas behind a high metal fence enclosing groves of the pandas's prized food, arrow bamboo.
Perhaps the most important achievement at the panda preserve was development of a substitute for arrow bamboo.
The research center also has provided zoologists the opportunity to diagnose, treat and prevent diseases that fell the animals, the official news agency reported.
Living in tents in the primitive environment of their research subjects, the scientists have resorted to modern technology to trace the breeding and eating habits of pandas.
Earlier this year, they trapped, anesthetized and fit three pandas with radio transmitters in collars. The three animals were then freed. Since then they have unwittingly sent back radio reports of their routine.
Last April 13, the scientists scored a first by recording the mating process, which began after 90 minutes of "fighting, roaring and panting" by two male rivals, according to the newspaper. Finally, one male panda gave up, leaving the victor to start "flirting" with the female before "the marriage was consummated," the paper reported.