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 Great article in The Washington Post

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Posts : 21
Join date : 2008-06-04
Location : northern California

PostSubject: Great article in The Washington Post   Sat Jun 14, 2008 11:14 pm

I just saw a 3-page article on the pandas at Wolong with a video and a slide show that a friend e-mailed me from the Washington Post Page. I tried to e-mail it from that page to Sandra but I guess I only forwarded the video link. Here's the title and author so you can search on the WP Web site for the article:

Captive Pandas Bouncing Back After Quake
By Jill Drew

The main Web site is


Captive Pandas Bouncing Back After Quake
Concern Persists in China For Wild Bears' Welfare
By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 15, 2008; A01

WOLONG NATURE RESERVE, China -- The man traces the panda's paw with his finger as she laps milky formula from a metal bowl. He strokes her head and tries to wipe her snout when she finishes, but she bats his hand away and curls into a forward roll, hiding her face. Then she turns to nip his boots, beginning a favorite game of tug of war.

Watching Qing Qing play with her keeper, Li Guo, it's easy to forget the massive earthquake whose epicenter was a few miles from this panda research center in a remote area of Sichuan province. Just a month ago, the 16-month-old cub had clung in panic to Li's chest after another keeper plucked her from the roof of her enclosure, which was shaking from being smashed by boulders the size of trucks.

But one glance up the mountain slopes is sufficient reminder. Small rockslides continue to rain down on the panda enclosures sandwiched in the narrow valley, as aftershocks and heavy rains shake loose layer after layer of raw earth, exposed in wide gashes on the mountain face by the initial 7.9-magnitude quake.

While geologists survey the valley to pinpoint a more stable site on which to rebuild the world's best-known panda tourist and research center, the keepers are focused on protecting the animals and easing their trauma. The keepers use a kind of touch therapy to comfort the bears, which are seen as national treasures in China and a symbol of Chinese goodwill abroad.

Those efforts are working. The 47 giant pandas currently living here are regaining their appetites and returning to active play. The sound of a car or the shaking of an aftershock no longer sends them bolting in fright. Rather, Qing Qing is like many others as she grabs a handful of bamboo and flops onto her back to munch peacefully, belly to the sun.
"She was very nervous after the earthquake," Li said. "She didn't like to be touched. She still is not as active as before the earthquake, but each day is better than the next."

Zhang Hemin, director of the Wolong Nature Reserve Administration, has devoted the past 25 years to protecting pandas. Now he is in charge of both the panda research center and the 4,500 people who live in the Wolong area and need to be resettled within the reserve's boundaries. The community was lucky; although many structures were left unsafe, the loss of life was limited. Zhang hopes that as Wolong rebuilds, it will become a model of environmental protection and sustainable development that will be the pride of China.

"In the 1980s, China was poor," Zhang said in an interview in a relief tent in downtown Wolong, where he is living with his staff. "When we said, 'Protect the pandas, protect the environment,' people did not understand. But today, environmental protection is deep in people's minds."

Protecting the pandas takes hard work and courage these days. Just getting enough bamboo, which makes up more than 90 percent of a panda's diet, is a major challenge.

The breeding center had always trucked in food for its captive pandas, leaving the naturally growing bamboo in the 500,000-acre reserve for the 150 wild pandas that roam its slopes. It used to take a couple of hours to drive the bamboo to Wolong, but the earthquake destroyed that road. Now, a driver hauling 3 1/2 tons of bamboo must navigate his refrigerated tractor-trailer over a treacherous road that crosses two mountain passes and is frequented by mountain goats and yaks. The bamboo run takes nine hours on a good day when the rain isn't heavy.

Rockslides remain a danger. On May 17, five days after the quake, a slide smashed the fence of a panda enclosure, and its resident, Xi Xi, fled. Zhou Minghua, who has been a panda keeper for 26 years, found her missing the next morning.

"It was so painful, I cannot describe the feeling," he said. "The only thing I can do is search."
On the evening of May 25, a road crew spotted a panda on a rockslide less than a mile from the breeding center. Two teams set out first thing the next day and by tracking her droppings, found Xi Xi two hours later. She was skittish, so they darted her with a tranquilizer gun. She broke into a panicked run but slowed as the anesthetic coursed through her system. She tottered and fell about 20 feet into a crevasse. The staff used ropes to pull her out then called a unit of armed police to help carry the 280-pound bear down the steep slope and back to the center.

Altogether, Zhou reckons, 100 people were involved in Xi Xi's return.
As the anesthetic wore off, Zhou stroked her, softly called her name and told her not to be afraid. He gave her bamboo shoots and protein bread, which she gradually began to eat. And eat and eat.
"Everything seems back to normal now," Zhou said.
The technique Zhou used was what Zhang, the director, calls "loving heart action," a kind of therapy he began using with the pandas in 2005. "I told my staff to touch, pet them, talk smoothly," Zhang said. "You will hold their trust, and it will calm them down."
Zhang first used the therapy as a way to reduce the dosages of anesthetic needed when his staff took blood or performed tests on the captive pandas. Today, cages are equipped with special armrests, and pandas are trained to hold out their arms for caresses while being fed. Similar caresses during medical procedures have cut sedative dosages tenfold, according to Zhang.

Now, the keepers are applying "loving heart action" to help calm pandas traumatized by the quake.

Until they are about 2 years old, panda cubs can be cuddled and romped with, though their roughhousing does draw occasional blood. The size and strength of a grown giant panda prevents such unprotected contact, and keepers do a lot of their stroking and talking with the adults between cage bars or on the other side of safety glass.

Each of the 38 keepers at the breeding center is assigned to watch over one or two pandas, whom they treat like little brothers or sisters. Indeed, a day at the outdoor nursery for panda cubs -- complete with a swing, slides, a seesaw and a yellow plastic rocking horse -- looks much like a play date for toddlers and their caregivers at a local park.
"We play with them a lot, to try to ease their minds," said Wei Ming, a keeper. In the first days after the quake, "they were really sensitive to noise and were very nervous. They are much better now," Wei said as he wrestled a teething panda that was biting his kneecap.

After evacuating the dozens of tourists at the center on the afternoon of the earthquake, the keepers ran back to rescue the pandas. None of the 14 cubs was injured, but keepers found some trembling in trees and others lying still and silent on the platform of an outdoor climbing gym, a sign they were overwhelmed with fear. They carried each cub out, put them on a bus and drove them into Wolong town, where bears and keepers spent the night. The cubs were returned to the center the next day when it was determined that their nursery area was relatively safe.

The adult pandas whose enclosures were damaged were put in cages and spent the first night outside the main office at the center. Later, they were moved to enclosures located farther from the landslides.
One panda at the center, 9-year-old Mao Mao, was killed in the quake. Her keeper, He Changgui recalled: "Her eyes could talk. She was really good with humans."

His heart sank when workers uncovered panda hair as they dug under the collapsed wall of Mao Mao's enclosure last week. "I was hoping that we wouldn't be able to find her, which would be a good thing because she would have run outside, to live in the wild world," He said. She had mated before the quake and though it was too soon to tell if she was pregnant, He had hoped. Mao Mao was buried Tuesday.

Losing one panda seems a small thing in a quake that ravaged whole cities, tore apart mountains and left more than 85,000 people dead or missing. But the larger effect of the quake on the precarious panda population is still unknown.

With its low birthrate and small numbers -- fewer than 2,000 pandas are thought to live in the wild and only about 230 live in captivity -- the species' hold on survival is tenuous. The earthquake hit at the height of breeding season, and its path cut through the prime swath of wild panda habitat.

Zhang has organized an expedition that is to leave late this week to document the quake's impact on the 150 wild pandas living in the reserve. Early estimates by the Chinese forestry service are that more than 80 percent of panda habitat was damaged and as much as 10 percent destroyed.

Meanwhile, Zhang is thankful the destruction at the research center wasn't worse. Five staff members were killed in the quake -- none of them was in the center at the time -- out of 40 people killed in the whole Wolong area. No tourists were injured, and only one panda died of the 63 that were here when the quake struck. One panda, Xiao Xiao, remains missing.

Qing Qing's keeper, Li, locks his charge's enclosure for the night, making sure she has plenty of bamboo for a snack. "To be a good keeper, you have to think from the animal's point of view," Li said. "You have to treat the panda as a friend."
Like a toddler, exhausted after fighting with Li each step before entering her cage, Qing Qing flops on her bed and in less than a minute is fast asleep.

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