Wolong Nature Reserve, China — The familiar, amiable figure ambled toward us. The massive white head with black ears and black rings around the eyes swung back and forth. Suddenly, the furry, black-and-white body stood upright, surprisingly tall. A muscular forearm swiped through the bars at the legs of an American woman.
Surprised but unhurt, she jumped back, newly respectful of China's giant panda bear. In this research center at least, the panda is not always as lovable as it looks in photographs or in zoos in Peking, Washington, and London.
Indeed, the giant panda has reason to be concerned. Here in its natural habitat, it is fighting to survive. But rescue efforts, supported by the World Wildlife Fund, are well under way.
Across this vast province of Sichuan in southwest China, 95 percent of the panda's staple food of arrow bamboo is withering away at the end of its normal 60-year growth cycle. When the bulk of the bamboo was planted 60 years ago, the Chinese did not know how long the cycle was. At least 32 pandas have died as a result of the bamboo famine in the past two years, according to the official English-language newspaper China Daily.
According to Zhang Kewen, this reserve's deputy director, efforts are at last being made to stagger plantings so that more bamboo will always be available, to mix in a type of glossy-leaved variety of cane, and to deliver emergency food rations to hungry pandas in the wild.
The Wolong Reserve, a beautiful, steeply mountainous wilderness covering almost half a million acres, is home to 100 pandas -- 10 percent of the 1,000 panda bears remaining in China.
Rescue efforts must continue for at least 15 years until a new crop of edible bamboo is ready. To this end, Mr. Zhang and his team are:
Tracking panda movements in the Wolong Reserve by trapping the bears and putting on them collars equipped with radio transmitters.
Sending out airplanes to drop food that includes sugar cane and, surprisingly, beef and mutton.
``Normally pandas don't eat meat, that's true,'' Zhang says. ``But when they are starving, they will. They'll even eat grass.''
One ailing panda and her hungry cub in Shaanxi Province, treated after failing to emerge from their cave for three days, are now said to be eating sugar cane, rice gruel, and fruit.
Two scientists, one from the United States and the other from Canada, are working with the Chinese here to help the panda population. One key area of research is into the arrow bamboo and what makes it a staple food. Scientists are trying to discover possible substitutes.
Meanwhile, a nationwide publicity campaign has brought in more than $667,000 from Chinese and foreigners, the China Daily reports. The money will augment funding allocated for rescue and food research by the government in Peking.
Zhang is grateful for Western support. ``The panda is not only a treasure of China but of the whole world,'' he said on a recent sparklingly-cold morning here.
The panda, for all its lovable appearance, is by no means easy to help. By nature, it is a solitary animal. Pandas are rarely seen in pairs, except in the mating season, which is extraordinarily short.
Westerners are well aware of the difficulties of producing panda cubs in London and Washington zoos. But Chinese encounter the same problems here at home.
``The female panda is in a condition to mate for only two weeks in the year,'' explains Zhao Chaonan, a tall research worker here at the Wolong research center in the reserve. ``What makes it really difficult for us is that she produces ova for fertilization for only two hours a year.''
Scientists so far have failed to find ways to pinpoint the exact time of ovulation. Mr. Zhao and others are examining panda biochemistry and behavior. They have recorded 12 different female sounds to try to find out which ones might give a clue to mating times. They are also examining the possibilities of artificial insemination.
So far, they have failed to rear even one cub in their research center. They are working with three males and five females, all brought in from the wild, some to be treated for illness.
Meanwhile, a new, two-year survey has been launched by the Chinese government and the World Wildlife Fund to discover exactly how many giant pandas live in Sichuan Province. About 30 people will work in 35 counties of the province, said to have the largest number of giant pandas in the world.
Sichuan, which means ``four rivers'' in Chinese, has some of China's most spectacular -- and perpendicular -- scenery. The average mountain slope here is 30 degrees, with a number of slopes tilting to 60 degrees. Water plunges in long feathery falls to a rock-filled tributary of the Min River below.
Wolong is a place of mist and sheer rock faces, cascading water, steep climbing paths that push through rock in long, dripping tunnels, and primeval forest. More than 100 peaks reach higher than 16,500 feet. The highest is 20,625 feet. (For comparison, Mt. Everest is 29,028.)
Villages cling to the bottoms of gorges, as they have done for millennia. Buildings in the old villages are made of wood. Their inhabitants, dressed in padded coats and baggy trousers, bend over the rows of vegetables they tend, and children run up and down the slopes.
Entering the reserve at 4,125 feet, one climbs by bus and then on foot to 7,590 feet looking for pandas in the wild. But the pandas were not to be found. In the end, one has to settle for a close-up look at the bears in Mr. Zhao's research center.