Panda center recovers from quake

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Southwest China's Wolong reserve, the world's largest giant panda breeding center, has recovered from the "devastating blow" dealt to it by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, with reconstruction slated to be completed by the end of 2012.

"The new center, with more advanced and comprehensive facilities, will play a more important role in the world's efforts to protect this endangered species," Zhang Hemin, director of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP) told Xinhua.

While pursuing higher quality in the artificial breeding of these rare bears, the new center will become more prominent in its role as a training center for pandas that will be released back into the wild after being born in the center, Zhang said. The center will also serve as a principal public educator in the area of wildlife protection, Zhang added.

The Wolong reserve, some 30 kilometers away from the epicenter of the 2008 quake, was severely damaged in the disaster. The quake left one panda dead, one injured and another one missing.

"With severe damage to the center's infrastructure, total economic losses amounted to more than 1.9 billion yuan," Zhang said. Zhang indicated that 7 percent of the reserve was totally destroyed, including the center's core panda habitat. Earthquake-induced landslides and debris flows damaged over 6,000 hectares of surface vegetation, which dealt a serious blow to the pandas' habitat.

Fourteen of the center's 32 panda enclosures were buried or totally destroyed, with the other 18 being severely damaged. The center's panda hospital, built with a donation from the Hong Kong Ocean Park, was deemed unsafe for use after the quake.

Despite the massive damage from the quake, the Wolong center has succeeded in breeding 47 cubs since the disaster. The center is now home to a total of 165 pandas, accounting for nearly 60 percent of China's giant panda population in captivity.

Most of the center's pandas have been moved to the Bifengxia breeding base in the city of Ya'an. Several other pandas were moved to zoos both home and abroad after the quake. Only six pandas stayed at the center to receive valuable training before being released back into the wild.

The new center is located in the Shenshuping area of Gengda Township, some 22 kilometers northeast of its previous location. The reconstruction of the center, clocking in at a cost of nearly 300 million yuan, began four weeks ago and is expected to be finished by the end of 2012.

"We selected Shenshuping because its geological structure is stable and safe. The flat area there is large enough to build the breeding center and panda dorms, while its slopes are vast but steep, making it a suitable place to carry out training for the bears," Zhang said. "Most importantly of all, it's the safest place we've been able to find for the pandas to live."

Sponsored by the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the new center will cover an area at least 10 times larger than the previous center. It will have 50 separate panda enclosures, a laboratory, a hospital and a training center for panda keepers and tourists to learn about panda protection.

The center will also have 23 specially designated zones in the wild mountain forests outside the center, where training programs will be carried out to help captive-bred pandas return, step by step, to the wild.

"The largest training zone is as large as one square kilometer. It's very important to provide an extensive free-living space for the pandas," said Zhang.

The new center also hopes to become a public education center, focusing on wildlife protection.

"We plan to build a panda museum, where the public can gain a systematic understanding of pandas and understand exactly what we are doing to help them live," said Zhang.

"In addition, we plan to invite schoolchildren to our center on a regular basis for short visits or summer camps, which I believe will encourage them to respect and protect all wild animals, not just pandas."

China will also soon receive its first panda disease control and prevention center, with construction in the city of Dujiangyan, a city near the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu, slated to be completed in 2010.

In the future, pandas from any breeding base in China can be transferred to the center for treatment if they contract infectious diseases. The center will include a lab, a veterinary hospital and 40 pens, Zhang said.

"We plan to cooperate with university labs and other medical organizations to expand our disease control studies to other animals. In the future, the center will also treat other rare animals, such as snow leopards and golden monkeys," said Zhang.

Giant pandas are among the world's most endangered species. Statistics from the State Forestry Administration show that about 1,600 pandas live in the wild, mostly in the mountains of Sichuan, while another 300 live in captivity in zoos around the world.

Most giant pandas born in captivity are not good breeders. Only 24 percent of females in captivity give birth, posing a serious threat to the survival of the species.

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