China Panda Center Copes With Sagging Tourism

Jingjing the panda is a mascot of the Beijing Olympics. i

Jingjing is a mascot of the Beijing Olympics. At just 2 years old, the panda already has her life story on bookshelves in the U.S. and China. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR
Jingjing the panda is a mascot of the Beijing Olympics.

Jingjing is a mascot of the Beijing Olympics. At just 2 years old, the panda already has her life story on bookshelves in the U.S. and China.

Louisa Lim/NPR

From 'Chengdu Diary'

Read entries about pandas from 'Chengdu Diary.' The blog was written by the hosts and producers of 'All Things Considered,' who were in China preparing for a special series when the massive Sichuan earthquake hit May 12, 2008.

Schoolchildren participate in the launch of the 'Panda: Watch Me Grow' book. i

Schoolchildren in China's Sichuan province participate in the launch of Panda: Watch Me Grow. Profits from the book will go toward the panda center in Chengdu, which predicts it will lose more than $1 million in revenue from the drop in visitors following the earthquake. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR
Schoolchildren participate in the launch of the 'Panda: Watch Me Grow' book.

Schoolchildren in China's Sichuan province participate in the launch of Panda: Watch Me Grow. Profits from the book will go toward the panda center in Chengdu, which predicts it will lose more than $1 million in revenue from the drop in visitors following the earthquake.

Louisa Lim/NPR

Two months after a massive earthquake struck China, a panda research base is struggling with major losses in revenues caused by a slowdown in tourism. A new book about a panda named Jingjing is being launched to help raise money for the center.

The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding hasn't suffered any physical damage from the earthquake, which left almost 90,000 people dead and missing. But visitor numbers plummeted, with many tourists cancelling trips to the region after the earthquake. Now just 300 people visit every day, about a tenth of the normal number.

The center predicts it will lose more than $1 million in revenue this year.

Cutting Back On Bamboo

"Economically, it is a disaster," says Zhang Zhihe, the center's director. He says the facility is reducing costs wherever it can — including cutting the amount of food the pandas are given.

"Before we [could] provide our pandas five kinds of bamboo in a day," Zhang says. "Right now, we can just only provide two or at most three. Before we [could] give our pandas 80 to 100 kilos [176 to 220 pounds] of bamboo; right now we can only give them 50 [110 pounds]."

As pandas munch their bamboo, he says that the animals are not going hungry.

In an effort to raise money for the center, the publisher of a new book, Panda: Watch Me Grow, is donating the book's profits — so far $30,000 from U.S. sales — to the facility. The book tells the story of probably the world's most watched 2-year-old: Panda Jingjing. The Olympic mascot's home is at the Chengdu Research Base.

The center's habitat conservation programs have all been halted. Like many others, the staffers are taking recovery a day at a time and still figuring out how to get by in this new post-quake world.

Uncertainty For Wild Pandas

This center has been much luckier than the other main panda base, up the mountains in Wolong. It was destroyed. Five staffers were killed, one panda died and another is still missing. The government has announced a $290 million plan to rebuild that center.

And two months on, much is still unknown about how the earthquake affected the 1,600 wild pandas, Sarah Bexell, director of conservation education, says.

"We do have a lot of worries about the wild population and of course all the other plants and animals in the region," Bexell says. "As people saw [on] television, entire sides of mountains collapsed, and this is prime habitat for giant pandas and their habitat's already so extremely limited."

Bexell says it's still not safe for researchers to assess the panda habitat. "So we're just now waiting to hear when we can go out and start looking at these areas," she adds.

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