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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Reporting from Chengdu, China this week, I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The death toll from the earthquake here is now officially over 51,000. Nothing is as significant as the huge loss of human life. But in this part of China, there's also an animal population that's a source of great concern: the giant panda.

BLOCK: People here have devoted their lives to saving the giant panda from extinction. And you can imagine how worried they are after the earthquake about such a fragile population. The species is found only in China. It's estimated there are fewer than 1,600 pandas left in the wild. There are 239 more in captivity, including 48 here in Chengdu, at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

When the earthquake hit, the director, Zhang Zhihe, first made sure everyone on his staff was okay. Then he rushed to the panda nursery to find out if the pandas were okay.

Mr. ZHANG ZHIHE (Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding): (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: The keepers told him the baby pandas panicked with the earthquake. They tried to climb up the iron bars of their indoor enclosure. The adults rushed outside and got as high off the ground as they could climb. And they were making terrified sounds.

Mr. ZHANG: (Foreign language spoken) Kind of a mixture, you know.

BLOCK: These pandas seemed fine now. But there's another panda center up in the mountains at Wolong, near the epicenter, which was very badly damaged: Five staffers were killed, and two pandas are still missing there. The Chengdu panda base has taken in eight pandas from Wolong so far. Zhang Zhihe expects he'll be receiving more, and possibly, injured pandas rescued from the wild in the earthquake zone. The Chengdu base started 20 years ago with six pandas - sick and starving - rescued from the wild.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

BLOCK: Last month, I was at the panda base at feeding time for the youngest panda cubs. As the caretakers called to them, eight panda babies - black and white fur balls - clambered over their wooden climbing structure, vocalizing with tiny squeaks.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

(Soundbite of squeaking)

BLOCK: The cubs rushed toward the keepers and grabbed baby bottles filled with formula with their front paws. They laid back on the grass and gulped them down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

BLOCK: Director Zhang Zhihe has worked very hard to build this into a world-class institution, and he has a remarkable story of his own.

Would you have ever dreamed when you were a little boy that this is where you would be?

Mr. ZHANG: No, we were starving at that time, you know? You know, we had no...

BLOCK: You were starving?

Mr. ZHANG: Yeah, we're starving. We have no food and no clothes and, you know, very poor.

BLOCK: Zhang Zhihe is 42, the son of peasant farmers. In 1981, he was the only one from his district of 200,000 people to go to college. He's been director of the Chengdu panda base for six years now. And you can hear his affection for pandas in his voice.

Mr. ZHANG: (Through translator) Pandas are very beautiful, very rare. The more time you spend with them, the more you grow to like them.

BLOCK: A few years ago, Zhang Zhihe did something revolutionary at the panda base. The staff had been feeding the pandas a diet heavy on grains and dairy, convinced a human diet was best. But the pandas were chronically ill, their development stunted. Zhang Zhihe said we're going to make a change. We're going to feed the bears mainly bamboo. Now it sounds simple, but he was bucking a rigid system. And it took a toll.

Mr. ZHANG: (Through translator): That was a very difficult time. I couldn't sleep for many, many nights. It was like having a stone on my heart that I couldn't get rid of.

Ms. KATI LOEFFLER (Director, Animal Health; Chengdu Panda Base): Zhang Zhihe had to fight with his veterinary staff, with his husbandry staff, with absolutely everybody. He had to take personal responsibility.

BLOCK: That's Kati Loeffler, she is the director of animal health at the panda base - one of two Western scientists Zhang Zhihe hired. Kati Loeffler says the stress was so severe that Zhang Zhihe became physically ill, even lost his voice for months.

Ms. LOEFFLER: But he did it. The change in the health of these animals over the last two years is even greater than I would have expected it to be.

BLOCK: Now, Zhang Zhihe is worried about the bamboo supply for these animals. They used to get a lot of their bamboo from right near the earthquake's epicenter.

Mr. ZHANG: But now we can't, you know, harvest bamboo from there, you know.

BLOCK: But, Zhang Zhihe knows the panda reserve at Wolong is far worse off. So even though he worries about his own supply of bamboo, he decided to send some up there, a big truckful. When this immediate crisis settles down, there will be another battle looming - this one over reintroducing giant pandas into the wild. The pandas at the breeding center have all been raised in captivity. They have no survival skills. Kati Loeffler says if you want to introduce a new generation of pandas into the wild and do it right, it would take five to 10 years of planning. But she says Zhang Zhihe has been facing a lot of pressure from the Chinese government to move pandas into the wild, and fast.

Ms. LOEFFLER: That's the next sexy thing to do. But I'm very encouraged by Zhang Zhihe's support of really trying to do it well and really taking the time to do the necessary planning and research that really has to go into it rather than just, you know, flinging a panda out there and seeing what happens, kind of thing.

BLOCK: And they're seeing what can happen. Two years ago, the Wolong reserve released a panda that had been bred and raised in captivity. Xiang Xiang was found dead within a year. Scientists believe he was killed by rival males.

(Soundbite of roar)

BLOCK: In Chengdu, back in April, inside the panda house, I heard a loud panda complaint.

(Soundbite of roar)

BLOCK: Which panda is that that's making all that...

(Soundbite of roar)

Mr. ZHIHE: This is Yah Xing(ph), right now she's in estrus.

BLOCK: She's in estrus?

In estrus, which means it was breeding time, and the staff wanted to move Yah Xing.

Mr. ZHIHE: She's not happy...

BLOCK: She's not happy?

Mr. ZHIHE: ...to yield to the keepers.

BLOCK: The panda base isn't called a breeding center for nothing. Their goal is to boost the panda population. Those panda babies I saw drinking from bottles, in the wild, they'd still be nursing. But at the base, the pandas are weaned a year or two early so the mothers can go into estrus again and maybe get pregnant. A female panda might be anesthetized three to six times in one day for artificial insemination. The veterinarian Kati Loeffler doesn't mince words. She says they're trying to make rabbits out of the pandas.

Ms. LOEFFLER: In the wild, a female will raise a cub probably on average about once every four years. In captivity, the goal is to get at least one cub, ideally twins, out of that female every single year, okay? Which, of course, is physiologically completely abnormal.

BLOCK: You call that a cub factory?

Ms. LOEFFLER: I call it a panda factory. Yes, it is.

Mr. ZHANG: It shouldn't be called a kind of panda factory.

BLOCK: Again, Director Zhang Zhihe.

Mr. ZHANG: Maybe for the first phase, it can be called a panda factory. But this factory should be a factory in which pandas with good quality, with good genetic diversity be produced.

BLOCK: Zhang Zhihe moves his hands to imitate a scale, balancing the interest of the pandas against the need to increase the population so it can sustain itself. He hopes that soon they can let panda moms stay with their cubs longer. It's better for the babies, he says. Right now, though, he has to deal with a slew of new problems caused by the earthquake.

Zhang Zhihe, when we were here about a month ago, this place was packed with people. And today, there's hardly anyone here.

Mr. ZHIHE: Because, you know, because of the earthquake, the tourism is totally destroyed.

BLOCK: The panda base relies heavily on money from ticket sales. He says this time last year, the base had as many as 5,000 visitors a day.

And how many people a day do you figure you're getting now?

Mr. ZHIHE: Now? Twenty.

BLOCK: Twenty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZHIHE: Twenty.

BLOCK: You know, we're laughing about that number, 20 people, but you've worked so hard to build this place, this institution, to something wonderful and respected. It's got to be scary for you to think about what the impact will be.

Mr. ZHIHE: It is, you know? It is scary, you know, but worry cannot solve problems. We need to find solutions.

BLOCK: The quiet is good for the pandas, Zhang Zhihe says with a rueful grin, but not good at all for the future of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. You can watch video of pandas playing. That's at our Web site, npr.org. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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