Sichuan’s pandas find new home after the earthquake
Glorious scenery and attentive staff. Freshly prepared meals, delivered twice daily. Even the odd DVD. Nothing to do but eat, snooze – and, just occasionally, have sex.
It is not the latest boutique hotel, but a new home for Sichuan’s pandas. Construction began this month on new facilities, which will cost 1bn yuan (£100m), to replace the world’s largest giant panda breeding centre, the Wolong nature reserve, destroyed in last May’s earthquake in China.
Four of the victims were keepers at the famed Wolong reserve, close to the epicentre of the shock; several more staff members risked their lives saving the creatures they had reared. The breeding centre and surrounding sanctuary are home to about 150 pandas.
“It was very scary; the hills collapsed and cracks opened in the land,” said Huang Yan, deputy director of research.
Pandas stopped eating and ran away when they heard the slightest sounds. To add to the keepers’ concerns, many were pregnant. “One of them was Guo Guo, who was saved by us from under the rubble. We had to give her sedatives. We were extremely worried she would suffer a miscarriage,” said Huang.
Keepers soothed the creatures by stroking their fur and increasing eye contact. They also moved them to a temporary home in Bifengxia – a smaller breeding centre across the province – where the results can be seen hard at play: 13 cubs awaiting a new home.
Deep within a bamboo forest in the mountains, the eight-month-olds wrestle happily in their enclosure as they await their keepers’ arrival with a dinner of carrots, bamboo shoots and milk. One squeaks with indignation as a playmate pushes it off a tyre; another has turned brown and black after rolling through the reddish mud. A fourth swings from a branch like a gymnast on bars – before tumbling off, sliding down the bank and landing in an ungainly heap at the bottom.
Their future base, just 10km from Wolong’s former centre, will include 25 projects funded by Hong Kong at a total cost of 1.3bn yuan, plus 19 projects funded by the Chinese government, at 270m yuan. A special disease control centre will be built in a nearby city.
The breeding programme already uses wide-ranging – and often unorthodox – methods which include screening wildlife DVDs to show pandas how to have sex and rear their young. The new centre will allow experts to develop their research, enhance the programme and step up efforts to release captive pandas into the wild.
But while environmentalists praise the efforts made to protect the captive breeding programme, they fear that the wild pandas may be at risk from the wider rush to rebuild in the quake zone.
“Development isn’t causing the best habitat to disappear but it is fragmenting habitat. You lose connectivity and have risks from issues like traffic and human actions or different types of invasive species,” said Marc Brody, who has worked with environmentalists in the region since 1993 and founded the US-China Environment Fund’s Panda Mountain project. “Some things could be more sustainable and provide opportunities for people to care for and help restore the panda habitat.”
With so many humans still in need after last year’s disaster, which left as many as 5 million homeless, one might expect resentment at the attention and cash lavished on the pandas. But, at least in Bifengxia, Sichuan residents voice their pride.
“We were very worried about them after the earthquake. Pandas are considered a treasure of the nation and the species is so rare,” said Zhang Yi, who lives in nearby Ya’an City and had brought guests to admire the cubs.
“Besides,” he added, “they’re very cute. Everybody loves pandas.