Fears over panda outpost near quake centre in China

Wildlife experts were worried today over the fate of a leading panda preserve close to the heart of the Chinese earthquake.

The Wolong National Nature Reserve and panda breeding centre is the only place in the world where the rare animals can be seen in large numbers.

More than two dozen British and American tourists who were thought to be panda-watching in the area also remained missing, and a British “rapid response” team was preparing to enter the region to search for them.

Pandas are such a symbol of China that the loaning of them to other countries as peace offerings has been described as “panda politics.” And they are so rare and so slow to breed that any large-scale loss could be critical to the population.

“It could be devastating,” said Suzanne Braden, director of US-based Pandas International, which supports Wolong with medical equipment and supplies. “The wild pandas, they can sense things. I’m sure they moved to higher terrain. But captive pandas do not have that luxury. They do not have the skills to survive in the wild.”

The Wolong centre, home to around 100 pandas, is deep in the hills north of Chengdu along a winding, two-lane road that reports say has been wiped out in places by the quake.

“We’ve lost contact with the Wolong centre for more than 20 hours and we are gravely concerned over the safety of our colleagues and the pandas,” a spokesman said.

Pandas are among the world’s rarest animals. Both the Wolong and Chengdu centers are part of efforts to breed giant pandas in hopes of increasing the species’ chances of survival. About 1,600 pandas live in the wild in China’s mountainous west and another 180 live in captivity.

The Wolong centre offers visitors the rare chance to play with young pandas, while wearing sterile gloves, boots and gowns for the pandas’ safety.

“It’s magical. It’s a beautiful place,” Ms Braden said. “It’s high, clean, pure, where you’d like to think that wild pandas would be.”

It is also difficult to reach, even in the best of times. Rescue workers only reached nearby areas by foot today, a day after the quake struck.

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