Last April, eight peasants from Tianquan county in Sichuan Province came upon an injured male panda who was weak from hunger because certain types of bamboo, the pandas' favorite food, had been dying.
Riding on a tractor bed, the group reportedly carried the 180-pound animal in their arms so he would not be jostled as they traveled the 50 miles of back roads to their village and then to the county seat.
The trip took 19 hours. This particular panda, a five-year-old named Quan-Quan, was nursed back to health. The peasants' village received a 1,000 yuan (about $500) reward from the provincial government.
Other pandas in Sichuan have not been so fortunate. Since the Chinese government's emergency rescue operations began last September, 23 pandas have been carried to research stations for treatment. Of these, nine have been released back into the wild and six have died in captivity.
Another 14 have been found dead in mountain areas, say provincial forestry officials. Experts say these died either from starvation or from a change in diet.
Millions of years ago, pandas were omnivorous creatures and roamed widely in mainland East Asia. Today, they live only in the lush and rugged mountain regions of southwest China.
About 800 of the estimated 1,000 pandas which survive in the wild are here in Sichuan Province. The remainder inhabit the southern areas of Gansu and Shaanxi provinces directly to the north. (There are also 60 to 70 pandas in research stations and zoos in China, and some 14 in zoos around the world.)
The panda is a cumbersome animal whose solitary life style and slow reproduction rate have made it much more vulnerable to the encroachment of human activities on its habitat. (A female panda produces one surviving offspring about every three years.) But the pandas' eating habits have led most directly to the current crisis.
''They are very selective in what they eat,'' explained Shi Jun Yi, a young researcher who has spent several years here at the Wolong natural reserve. ''Adult pandas prefer the mature leaves of the arrow bamboo, though they will eat other varieties if they are available.''
Adults can eat up to 44 pounds of bamboo leaves a day, he added. The problem is that the arrow bamboo, and certain other types in the panda's diet, have entered a flowering and withering process in what experts say is a 40-50 year natural cycle. The arrow bamboo has been withering in 70 percent of the areas where it is found, and in 90 percent of the areas most heavily populated by pandas, said Hu Tie Qing, head of wildlife protection in the Sichuan forestry department.
Unable to find alternative food, and too frightened to venture down into lower elevations near human settlements, the pandas have been going hungry.
The first indications of the bamboo flowering were evident 10 years ago. In 1976, 138 pandas were found dead in the Niu Tou Shan mountains.
At the time, little was known about the pandas' eating habits or about the bamboo they like so much. The country failed to take action, officials admitted recently, mainly because government authorities at all levels were caught up in the final days of the Cultural Revolution and paid little attention to wildlife conservation.
The most recent outbreak of the flowering cycle began in the spring of 1983, according to George Schaller, an American zoologist with the New York Zoological Society who has spent the past four years studying pandas under the auspices of the World Wildlife Fund. This time, Dr. Schaller said during a telephone interview, the flowering has been occurring on a massive scale and has affected several species of bamboo simultaneously.
The rugged and almost inaccessible mountain areas where pandas live - areas where often there are no roads and few footpaths - are a challenge to researchers and survey teams. The terrain of deep mountain gorges and thick underbrush, generally at elevations of 7,000 feet to 10,000 feet, makes it difficult to locate where the pandas may be in serious trouble.
Once the trouble spots have been pinpointed, the need is to help the pandas survive the next several years until the bamboo has recovered its full growth.
Panda rescue operations have been given a high priority by China's government.
At Wolong - the reserve with the largest concentration of pandas - dozens of patrols have been sent out to survey areas which have been most seriously affected by bamboo withering. Five permanently manned observation posts have been set up in these areas.
The investigations in Wolong have showed that 60 out of the 100 pandas believed to be living in the 1,200-square mile reserve have been suffering from malnutrition. Workers have set out over six tons of fresh pork and mutton. Much of it was actually eaten by the pandas. Radio tracking devices have been attached to six of the animals so that researchers can follow their migration.
Hundreds of peasants living in critical areas have signed experimental one-year contracts to report sightings, and provide help if necessary. Each peasant receives a payment at the end of the year if the contract conditions are met. The government hopes this novel application of China's reform-oriented job responsibility system will raise public awareness about wildlife protection and stem human damage to the pandas' habitat.
In the past several years, the Chinese government has developed - both independently and in cooperation with UNESCO and the World Wildlife Fund - other long-range measures to protect the panda. These include research into forest restoration and bamboo propagation, as well as attempts to replant those varieties of bamboo which the pandas favor, so that the flowering cycle in the future will not recur on such a massive scale.
There also is ongoing experimentation with artificial insemination. One panda at the Chengdu zoo has given birth to three cubs since 1978, all conceived this way.
At Wolong, there are long-term plans to relocate some 1,800 villagers, mostly ethnic Tibetans, from the upper reaches of the river valley near the heart of the reserve to a lower elevation. The relocation program will cost an estimated
Since the rescue operations began, Peking authorities have allocated about $2 .25 million to the effort, though half of that sum is for setting up panda rehabilitation and treatment centers which are still in the planning stage.
The Sichuan provincial government has allocated about $100,000 to the program. The recently established China Wildlife Conservation Association has collected donations from the Chinese public amounting to $550,000. Donations from abroad have included $9,000 from President Reagan's ''Pennies for Pandas'' campaign and $250,000 from Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone of Japan.
The World Wildlife Fund and the Toyota Company of Japan have donated 20 pickup trucks.
Foreigners give the Chinese high marks for their efforts. ''The Chinese have done a marvelous job in organizing the whole rescue effort,'' Dr. Schaller said. ''From the top leadership on down, they have set a wonderful example in wildlife conservation for the whole world.''