For more than a month, my heart and thoughts have seldom left the misty mountains of central China, site of a devastating 7.9 earthquake on May 12 – and home to most of the world’s giant pandas.
The loss of human life is heartbreaking – nearly 100,000 killed in the space of a few minutes – but I have to admit it was the death of a single panda named Mao Mao that moved me to tears. The discovery last week of her body buried under rubble at the Wolong Panda Center was a blow to Wolong staff and panda conservation supporters everywhere who had believed all the captive bears survived the ruin of the breeding center.
Now it appears that damage to the bamboo forests beyond the center threatens the existence of 90 per cent of the 1,600 giant pandas in the wild. While moviegoers laugh at the adventures of a lovable animated bear in Kung Fu Panda, the fate of China’s real pandas is uncertain.
The pandas I know best are Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and their rambunctious cub Tai Shan, shown here in photos by my friend Roxanne. They belong to China and are part of the breeding program but live at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, and are considered by many to be the real First Family. Also close to my heart are the pandas at Zoo Atlanta, the San Diego Zoo, and the Memphis Zoo. When I heard that an earthquake had struck Sichuan Province, my first thought was of Hua Mei and her younger brother Mei Sheng, who were born at the San Diego Zoo and were sent to Wolong for breeding. I’m happy to say that both are safe.
Maybe you think this is an either/or situation, that no one should worry about animals when so many human lives were lost and the survivors are homeless. But to the Chinese, pandas are revered national treasures -- and conservation and captive breeding programs give employment to thousands of Chinese citizens. When the Wolong Center was cut off by the earthquake, supplies brought in by military helicopters included tons of bamboo for the bears as well as food and tents for the staff.
Almost five millions acres of panda habitat were damaged, some of it totally destroyed, in the initial quake and aftershocks. Landslides sheared vegetation from mountainsides and buried it under boulders. No one knows how many wild pandas were killed, because scouting parties haven’t been able to explore the dangerous terrain. One thing is certain: any surviving bears will starve if they can’t find edible varieties of bamboo.
The goal of the breeding program at Wolong Center, at the smaller Chengdu Panda Base, and a number of worldwide zoos was to create a captive population of 300 genetically diverse pandas that could save the species if a disaster decimated the wild population. The earthquake of May 12 may have been that disaster. But even the captive pandas are imperiled by the shortage of bamboo. The accessible supply will run out in three to five months.
Chengdu Base came through the quake intact, but many buildings at the beautiful riverside Wolong Center were destroyed, and all the rest were damaged. The eight Wolong cubs that will greet Olympic visitors were rushed to the Beijing Zoo weeks ahead of schedule, and six other Wolong pandas were hastily sent to another reserve. Staff members sleep in tents and live amid rubble, and they spend their days trying to provide a normal routine for the traumatized pandas remaining at the center. Rebuilding on a new, safer site could take years. Meanwhile, the captive pandas that may be the future of their species need human help to survive.
The Colorado-based non-profit Pandas International, which has supported China’s captive breeding centers for almost a decade, was the first outside organization to send supplies – for both bears and humans – into Wolong. If you want to help, you can make an individual donation through PI’s web site or you can join with a group of friends to “adopt” a Wolong bear. The U.S. zoos that house pandas are also collecting funds for earthquake relief through their web sites.
I don’t want to imagine a world without these beautiful animals. It’s up to humans to make sure our planet doesn’t lose another irreplaceable species.