BEIJING – A Chinese forestry official said Tuesday that giant panda habitat in China’s Sichuan province, the endangered animal’s main preserve, was devastated by last month’s massive earthquake.
The world-renowned Wolong Nature Reserve and 48 others created in the province to protect the pandas and other endangered species were damaged by the quake, said Cao Qingyao, a spokesman for the State Forestry Administration.
He said about 80 percent of Sichuan panda habitat suffered some degree of damage from the quake, which sent rocks, soil and vegetation crashing into river valleys.
Losses to the wild population remained unknown, he said.
“We still cannot reach some of the local habitats, so it’s impossible to assess the exact losses,” Cao told reporters in Beijing.
The endangered panda is revered as a kind of unofficial national symbol in China, the only country in which pandas are found in the wild. About 1,600 of the animals live deep in steep bamboo covered mountains mostly in Sichuan and the neighboring province of Shaanxi. Another 180 have been bred in captivity.
Wolong, which used to house 64 pandas, suffered heavy damage, with one panda killed and another still missing. The center remains closed to visitors, and might not open again until next year. Six pandas have been sent to another reserve in Sichuan, and eight have been sent to Beijing for an Olympics stay at the Beijing Zoo that was planned before the quake.
David Wildt, a panda expert who is chief scientist at the National Zoo in Washington D.C., said photographs showed severe damage to the animal’s range, but called Cao’s 80 percent damage figure a “guesstimate.” The only way of knowing the full effect would be to send teams into the largely inaccessible area to check, he said.
“A high priority would be to get field scientists into those preserves to make an accurate assessment of damage to habitat,” Wildt said in a telephone interview from Washington.
Scientists at Wolong had said wild pandas’ innate survival sense would alert them to take refuge from quake-triggered landslides on high ground, but Wildt said that had not been scientifically proven.
“We really have no clue as to how any animal is going to respond in anticipation of an earthquake,” Wildt said.
Yu Jinping, director of China conservation and education at Zoo Atlanta, said it could take years to accurately estimate the damage done to the panda habitat in the quake zone.
“There’s no doubt the habitat has been heavily damaged,” said Yu. “But the transportation is so that it’s almost impossible to reach these remote areas right now, so it’s only a rough estimate.”
Yu said that most of the wild pandas are likely to survive because they can travel to find other sources of bamboo.
“Although some areas were destroyed by mudslides and rocks falling down, I think most of them will be OK,” Yu said.
The 7.9 magnitude quake killed almost 70,000 people and left 5 million homeless.
Cao said 232 forestry workers were killed and that the quake also badly damaged forestry resources in the affected areas, with direct economic losses to the forestry business of $3.3 billion.