China's government and people work together to save pandas

For the first time since the Communist regime was founded in 1949, ordinary Chinese are being permitted to donate funds to a nonstate cause -- preserving pandas.

China's panda population, now estimated to be about 1,000, is threatened by a disastrous loss of one of its staple foods, the arrow bamboo. In an effort to provide both immediate help and more long-term solutions, the Peking authorities have allocated 500,000 yuan ($250,000) for an emergency save-the-panda program and approved the launching of a public panda fund within China.

Since early this year, 95 percent of the arrow bamboo has blossomed, withered , and died. The cycle occurs only every 50 or 60 years. It deprives pandas of their main source of food for at least 10 years, until new growth has developed.

One of the main areas affected by the withering, the Qionglai Mountains in Sichuan Province, encompasses the 770 square miles of the Wolong natural reserve , the largest of China's 12 panda reserves. Wolong, run jointly by Chinese natural reserve experts and the World Wildlife Fund, is spearheading the current campaign to save the giant pandas from this latest threat.

Already several pandas have died this year. One Chinese specialist trying to track the starving beasts also perished in the freezing temperatures of the mountains.

Under the government-funded emergency plan, pandas are being lured with smoked meats to other supplies of bamboo or manmade substitutes. But many pandas have resorted to eating grass, and this is causing nutritional problems. So some 60 observation posts, manned by more than 300 wildlife workers camping out in the mountains, have been established to track and capture weak and sick pandas for treatment.

One panda "farm" has been set up in the Wolong reserve with the facilities to study as well as treat pandas suffering from malnutrition. It has already saved two pandas found starving. Another farm is to open in Gansu Province next year.

But five farms and an additional 4 million yuan ($2 million) are needed if the pandas are to survive the withering cycle, according to the head of the official panda preservation program, Deputy Minister of Forestry Dong Zhiyong.

"It is not enough to try to save pandas simply by placing food at certain spots on their regular foraging routes," says Ma Xingmian, a member of China's environmental science association who has been involved in the preservation program.

"When a shortage hits an area, often the animals will travel elsewhere to look for food. And if they change their route, they will miss the food put out for them anyway. When they are starving, they don't even have the strength to reach food, even if they are attracted by the scent," he said.

But Mr. Dong says it will be some time before more panda farms can be financed and built. Hence Peking's decision to permit formation of a fund to which ordinary people can contribute.

"What people can do now is continue providing food and aid, while we build the farms as quickly as the funds allow us," Dong says.

The additional money is also needed for more long-term solutions, such as cultivation of hand-planted bamboo and the study of the bamboo to determine what triggers the withering cycle and whether it can be prevented or altered.

"It is hoped that bamboo can be planted in the mountains in such a way that it won't all die at once," Dong says. "We have already paid too high a price."

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