IF the giant panda is a god, as natives living among Wolong's roaring cataracts and shimmering bamboo-covered mountains have long believed, then Lele must be the incarnation of bliss. A five-year-old female panda, Lele waddles across her kennel at the Wolong Panda Breeding Center, somersaults onto her back with a thud, and blinks her eyes. With her feet poking skyward, she heaves a sigh, reaches out with a stout paw for bamboo, and munches enough saplings to make up a small grove.
Outside the breeding center, high up in the misty forests of the Qionglai Mountains, pandas also have cause to be content, say Chinese wardens.
A famine brought on by the cyclical flowering of arrow bamboo in 1983 has passed so pandas in the wild, while not surfeited like Lele, are comparatively well fed, say the wardens.
Foreign conservationists, however, say that although the withering of bamboo is over, a dire, long-term threat is growing. Poachers, loggers, and settlers continue to thin out groups of the black-and-white panda or hack away at their remote wooded habitats.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said recently that unless Beijing provides $19.3 million for a ``panda management plan,'' the ``great bear-cat,'' as the Chinese call the panda, will become extinct.
Finds of fossils show that the panda used to range from Hebei Province in the north to Vietnam in the south, and from Anhui Province in the east to Burma in the west.
Humans have relentlessly reduced the number of pandas to about 900 in a few pockets in Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanxi provinces. About 100 pandas are in captivity in China and abroad.
Conservationists need a large sum of money soon - $14.6 million under the five-year plan - to bankroll the planting of ``bamboo corridors'' that will link the remaining pockets of forest where pandas live, according to foreign conservationists.
Without narrow woods connecting isolated panda groups, the animals are likely to interbreed and lose the genetic diversity critical to their survival, say Chinese and foreign conservationists. Some of the funds would also be used to mark off 14 new ``panda conservation areas,'' according to the official press.
The remainder of the money for the proposed panda scheme, some $4.7 million, would go toward maintaining existing panda reserves.
Lobbyists for the plan have suffered a glancing blow from communist leaders in China, foreign conservationists say.
Since the bloody June 1989 crackdown on liberal protest in Beijing, the leadership has sought to halt economic turmoil and forestall unrest by intensifying a policy of harsh austerity.
The sparing, embattled atmosphere in Beijing has hampered efforts by the Forestry Ministry to secure funding for the panda plan, says Chris Elliot, head of the panda project for the World Wide Fund for Nature.
Meng Sha, an official with the ministry's conservation division, says ``China is not a developed country, so although the panda is considered a national treasure, we have very limited funds to protect it.''
The ministry has postponed presenting the plan to China's State Council for more than a year because of the tight state funds. But even if the ministry fails to win support for the special scheme, it could sustain the pandas with the annual $849,000 earmarked for that purpose, says Mr. Meng.
Foreign conservationists disagree. They say efforts to safeguard the pandas' habitat have grown particularly critical because China has had limited success in its key aim of breeding the animal in captivity.
The record of the Wolong breeding center supports the belief among conservationists that the panda will more effectively avoid extinction if both scientists and laymen leave it alone to regenerate itself in the wild. Only one cub has been born at the center. It died in 1988 at the age of two.
Zhang Hemin, assistant director at the breeding center, says artificial insemination is necessary for breeding animals because the eight pandas at the riverside compound of kennels and laboratories are jealous of their territory and fight when put together.
Mr. Zhang acknowledges, however, that ensuring the pandas a secure habitat and allowing them to mate in the wild is the best way to revive the panda population.
``In the wild, with many pandas, there is a much higher probability that an ovulating female and virile male will mate - it's very difficult to achieve this at the center,'' Zhang says.
In the wild, however, many pandas must evade the snares and gunshots of poachers. The hunting of pandas for profit is widespread, despite the execution of three poachers in the past year, Mr. Elliot says.
Wardens are often poorly trained and fail to adequately patrol the reserves, he says. A panda pelt on the black market in Hong Kong can fetch $40,000, more than 100 times the annual income of the average peasant.
Even if the State Council approves more funding for panda conservation, Chinese officials say they will lack enough money for a critical facet of panda protection: inducing peasants to quit logging, hunting, and trapping or to move away from the reserves.
Wardens attempting to coax Wolong natives into new homes off the reserve confront a gradual but relentless tide of rural Chinese who have eroded the panda population for centuries.
Despite a reward of up to $318 and a free allotment of rice every year, only 50 out of the 4,000 natives of Wolong have moved into new houses elsewhere, says Yang Ziqing, deputy director of the reserve. He says efforts to move the peasants are complicated by ethnic tensions; nine out of 10 natives of Wolong are ethnic Tibetans.
Peasants want to stay put because their hearts are firmly tied to the serene, lush valleys at Wolong, says Zhen Tianjin, a farmer. He declined the official offer to move his family of six from their home and two acres of beans, corn, and sweet potato plots.
``The wardens offered me $318 but it's not enough to make ends meet,'' Mr. Zhen says, weaving a tall wicker basket.
``And I just can't move: My family has lived here for centuries,'' he says.