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'Panda Daddy' to the rescue
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Pandas saved from the earthquake take their breakfast in Wolong reserve's breeding center. Photos courtesy of Zhang Hemin

Pandas saved from the earthquake take their breakfast in Wolong reserve's breeding center. Photos courtesy of Zhang Hemin 

Zhang Hemin, director of Sichuan's Wolong Nature Reserve, says he likes being called "Panda Daddy".

"'Father of the Panda'? That's just a little bit too serious," he says, "(though) I may have advanced research of the animal in certain aspects."

Seven months after the devastating May 12 earthquake shook the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan, where 70 percent of the country's panda population lives, Zhang was in Hong Kong, pleading for help to rebuild the home he had shared with his "panda babies" for the past two decades.

The entrance of Wolong Nature Reserve is blocked by rocks caused by landslides from the May 12 earthquake. [China Daily]

The entrance of Wolong Nature Reserve is blocked by rocks caused by landslides from the May 12 earthquake. [China Daily] 

Reconstruction is expected to cost 2 billion yuan (US$290 million). The city's Ocean Park Conservation Foundation committed HK$2.6 million during Zhang's trip. But the bulk of that amount, 1.5 billion yuan, will come from the SAR government, if its legislative council gives the nod.

"I was in Chengdu when the quake struck," Zhang recalls. "My first thought was to return to Wolong, by all means (necessary)."

He drove to Dujiangyan, a city between Chengdu and Wolong. From there he walked for 25 hours, spending the night in a discarded vehicle, before arriving at Yingxiu before noon on May 13.

"Both Yingxiu and Wolong are located 30 km from the quake's epicenter. So seeing the havoc nature had wreaked in one place made me realize how bad it must be at the other place," Zhang says. "For the first time since the quake happened, I cried."

Realizing there was no way forward, even for those who were prepared to climb on all fours, Zhang turned back and returned to Chengdu, following the same route, trudging for another 38 km.

Zhang arrived in Chengdu on May 15 and waited for another day before being "airlifted" into the mountain by rescue helicopter.

In addition to five staff members dying, 14 of the nature reserve's 32 panda houses were wrecked and the rest sustained severe damage. Landslides and mudslides wiped out about 6,117 hectares of vegetation.

The director recalls the day when a funeral was held for 9-year-old panda Mao Mao, a mother of five. Mao Mao's body was found crushed under a wall in her enclosure.

"With every spade of dirt I shoveled into her grave, I felt that my heart was being peeled away," says the director who found it equally hard to bear the thought of another panda still missing - meaning buried too deep under the rubble to be found.

"Everything I had given in my life was destroyed in a few seconds," he says.

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