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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED in Chengdu, China. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

This next story is not the one I had planned. I've been working for some time on a story about conservation education here in Sichuan Province, programs to foster a new environmental consciousness among the Chinese people and encourage them to protect wildlife and habitat. That habitat happens to include some of the areas most badly damaged by last week's earthquake. And those efforts on conservation education are on hold.

Last month, I spent some time here with an American named Sarah Bexell. She's director of conservation education at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. And she spent a lot of time with young people in this part of China teaching them the value of protecting the environment.

Ms. SARAH BEXELL (Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding): The younger generation in China can afford to care. They're not starving. Now, they have food, they have good jobs, they have access to education, and so that lends a huge amount of time and money and commitment, because you're not at subsistence level anymore.

BLOCK: We were talking there before the earthquake. Now Sarah Bexell worries about the people she's been working with up in the mountains. She doesn't know yet if they and their families are safe. And she knows the work she's been so devoted to will have to be put on the back burner during the immediate crisis. Sarah Bexell and her staff started their work just down from the Chengdu panda base at the Panda Road Primary School.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: When I visited in April, I watched a line of second graders bunny hop into a classroom. Each student was wearing a hand-drawn masked of an animal. There were pandas, frogs, fish and lions.

Unidentified Child: (Speaking foreign language)

BLOCK: This boy says I'm the king of the grasslands. Do you want to hear me roar?

Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language)

(Soundbite of boy shouting)

BLOCK: Staff from the panda base worked with the school to start this program -call it animal appreciation.

Ms. BEXELL: Our first step is usually empathy.

BLOCK: Again, Sarah Bexell.

Ms. BEXELL: For children to sort of put themselves in an animal's shoes and imagine how an animal feels when it's in a cage versus when it's in an open field and in a natural habitat. And then as they grow up, what we're hoping that will turn into is environmental stewardship.

BLOCK: And the idea is you have to begin very young, with four to seven year olds, or even younger.

Ms. BEXELL: A lot of those morals and ethics are pretty hardwired by that time.

BLOCK: Sarah Bexell and her Chinese colleagues have been trying to spread these messages to both children and adults, that China's domestic tourist boom, population growth and pillaging of China's resources pose terrible threats to the environment. And those trends encroach on the habitat of endangered giant pandas and many other animals. You do hear stories of pandas wandering out of the forest and into villages. This is very uncommon, but a troubling sign for what should be an elusive species. And to make matters worse, now there are fears that with the earthquake and landslides there could be a massive die-off of bamboo. That's the main food source for the giant pandas, whose habitat was already precarious.

Before the earthquake, Sarah Bexell took me way up a twisting mountain road into the Longxi-Hongkou National Nature Reserve. It was set up in 1997 to protect the giant panda and its habitat. Last week the reserve suffered severe damage during the earthquake. It's very close to the epicenter. Sarah Bexell is 38, started working in China almost 10 years ago. She came from Zoo Atlanta and she settled in Chengdu fulltime in 2006. Back in April, we walked down a path set between mountains that were blanketed with haze.

How far from here would pandas be in the wild?

Ms. BEXELL: It could easily be within a couple of kilometers, up in some of these high mountains probably.

BLOCK: Have you ever seen them in the wild?

Ms. BEXELL: No. But I've seen poop from (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEXELL: For anybody that does anything with pandas, it's like the coolest thing ever, is seeing where a panda has sat and pulled off all the bamboo and you can see that in the wild and their droppings and just, you know, to stand there and think, wow, a panda's sat right there, a real one that still has its freedom. And just to know they're out there, to really feel their presence, is amazing.

BLOCK: Sarah Bexell has devoted her years in China to spreading her passion for the environment to young people.

MS. BEXELL: What we want our students to understand is that animals have lives that are separate from us. They have their families. They have their favorite places to go play. And if we go in and muck it up for them, they don't get to have those things. And we want kids to dream of wild animals being wild animals.

BLOCK: Tell me, when you think about, maybe not right here but throughout China and what's happened to habitat and what's happened to the environment, how do you describe it to people?

MS. BEXELL: It's really, I don't know, mass destruction? That sounds so horrible, but that really is, or even just a raping of the land. I mean taking it for everything. One thing that's I think most disturbing for us, like when we do have kids out in the nature reserve, or even if we're here doing research, you know, and they're viewing local people and whatnot, is you don't hear animals, you don't see animals. We've seen I think one squirrel ever in a nature reserve. You might see insects, worms, and you hear the birds, but you don't see anything. It's gone, it's been taken for food trades, fur trades, medicinal trade. And not just from this country; I mean it's exported to other countries also.

BLOCK: Given what's happened here, given what you see every day, how hopefully are you of being able to turn everything around through the work that you do with conservation education?

MS. BEXELL: Hope is very fleeting. I think when we talk with young people and we see those lights go on and see their love of animals or see their fascination with nature, you know, we have a lot of hope that the next generation will think about their actions, whether it be how to utilize resources or the wildlife that they consume in many different forms. And we just, we hope it's not to late.

BLOCK: Do you worry that it might be too late for China?

MS. BEXELL: Of course. I think we all do. So - it's hard.

BLOCK: And now of course the destruction caused by this earthquake has dealt her efforts a serious setback. Sarah Bexell and her staff are worried not just about habitat that's been destroyed, but even more about the people they've been working with in these rural communities. She says right now healing and rebuilding are the priority. And maybe she and her staff can help with that.

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