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UPDATED: May 11, 2009 Web Exclusive
Panda Protection First
The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding gives priority to panda protection despite temporary financial difficulties

A panda takes a rest at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding on May 7 (CHEN RAN)

Panda protection will remain the first priority despite the challenges faced by pandas and their keepers, the head of a panda research base said.

Wang Chengdong, assistant head of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, made the remarks at a briefing in Chengdu, capital city of Sichuan Province, days ahead of the one-year anniversary of the 8.0-magnitude Wenchuan earthquake.

A total of 18 panda cubs were born in 2008 before the May earthquake, more than in any year since 1987. But since then there have been no new births.

"There were no dead pandas reported, but we were really worried about how the quake would affect them in terms of psychology," Wang said.

Staff members at the base consoled the pandas by giving them bamboo, their favorite food, but another problem cropped up immediately when the damaged transportation network affected the food supply from natural reserves. Consequently, the base resorted to bamboo from less affected areas and added nutrition to the bamboo.

Wang said the biggest problem the base faces now is tight funding. Annual costs are about 20 million yuan ($2.8 million), which come from state subsidies, fundraising and ticket sales. Unfortunately, the number of tourists fell to less than 300,000 from 600,000 before the quake, meaning revenue from ticket sales has also fallen off at least 50 percent. Some programs have been suspended in order to meet basic needs.

Established in 1987, the base, which started with six rescued wild pandas, has since managed to breed 124 panda cubs. With 83 pandas on site, it is the second largest panda breeding base in the world after the nearby Giant Panda Protection and Research Center in Wolong, Sichuan.

Wang said the base is capable of calculating and predicting the panda's gestation period and delivery dates; the major mission is to have 100 to 150 pandas on site in the next 10 years through artificial breeding. But he also noted that the ultimate goal of artificial breeding is to release pandas into the wild.

"First, it would increase the panda population. Second, it would aid academic research and the promotion of scientific knowledge. What's more, it could be a trial for individual wild release," Wang said.

According to Wang, various conditions have to be taken into consideration before releasing pandas into the wild, including gender, population density and bamboo supplies.

The first panda wild release center in the world broke ground last month in Dujiangyan City in Sichuan Province, where most pandas live. It will become an international ecological protection area that integrates academic research, education and tourism.

"Creating a buffer zone--half artificial and half natural environment--is the center's major task, which will lead the way to eventual release into the wild," Wang said.

(Reporting from Chengdu)

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