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Sichuan quake portends frugal life for pandas
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Prior to the May 12 quake, life for giant pandas in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, was one of sweet abundance.

But damage to the province's bamboo forests has sent prices of bamboo - staple diet of giant pandas - spiraling.

Fear of further quakes also inhibits tourism, which means a dwindling number of visitors to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding and hence a serious drop in admission ticket income .

"This is the most difficult time in the history of the base - even more so than after the outbreak of SARS - since it was set up in 1987," base chief Zhang Zhihe told China Daily.

One German tourist group visited the base during the SARS outbreak, but none, other than a few backpackers, has visited it since the quake.

"Before the quake, the base received between 3,000 and 5,000 visitors a day. Now it averages only 30 to 50 visitors a day. The base is expected to suffer a loss of 15 million yuan ($2.2 million) in admission ticket income this year," Zhang said.

This drop in income calls for drastic measures. Keepers now feed each panda a daily 50 kg of bamboo, as compared with the 70 to 89 kg a day before the quake. "Pandas tend to waste a lot of bamboo because they eat only the freshest and most tasty parts," Zhang said.

Panda bamboo fodder formerly came from Dujiangyan, Wenchuan, Beichuan and Jiangyou, all of which were hit hard in the quake. Landslides also ruined many bamboo forests, and locals are too busy with post-disaster reconstruction to gather bamboo for the base. "As a result, the price of bamboo has risen from 1.8 yuan to 2.5 yuan (36 cents) a kilo" Zhang said.

His base, home to 67 pandas, formerly turned on the air-conditioning system when the outdoor temperature hit 25 degrees Centigrade; this is a measure now taken only at 26 degree Centigrade heat. Keepers also used to bathe pandas in running water.

"Now they turn off the water when the bathtub is full. The base relies on income from admission tickets for its survival. Consequently the drop in visitors means that pandas will have to get used to a more frugal life," Zhang said, with a wry smile.

Economic problems have also forced the base to cease its conservation education projects in the province's primary and high schools, colleges and nature reserves.

Soon after the earthquake, many individuals and organizations sent emails and letters to the base, asking whether it had been badly damaged or closed, and whether its pandas would be relocated to other cities.

"Apparently, they mistook the base for the Wolong Nature Reserve which was particularly hard hit in the quake," said Zhang, whose base has remained open since the earthquake.

He disclosed that the base plans to launch a PR campaign in Japan and the United States, letting it be known that both the base and Chengdu are safe.

The base has cooperated with a Japanese film studio in making a film about the base. A full 300,000 people are expected to attend the premiere on August 31. "The base will distribute booklets about the base and Chengdu to movie goers at the premiere," he said.

The number of Japanese visitors to the base is third largest after those from the United States and Europe.

(China Daily July 1, 2008)

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