Disasterology 8: A panda baby boom, five years after Sichuan earthquake

October 22, 2013

For survivors of Superstorm Sandy in the U.S. Northeast, the Sendai tsunami in Japan and the massive earthquake in Chengdu, China, the scars of disaster are still palpable. I’m part of a group of journalists brought together by the East-West Center in Hawaii to see how the people and environments hit by these catastrophes are faring, one year,  two years and five years later. We began our tour on Sept. 29. Here are the other posts in the series:

This has been a bumper year for giant pandas at the Chengdu Research Base: 17 babies born, including a rare set of triplets and a set of twins. Fourteen survived as of October 12 and nine of those shared a playpen in which they mostly napped, the picture of adorable peacefulness.

In truth, there are pandas almost everywhere you look at the Chengdu research center in the northern suburbs of China’s fourth-largest city. That’s a hopeful sign, five years after a magnitude 8 earthquake devastated the Wolong Nature Reserve, arguably the most important panda preserve on the planet and home to many of the 1,600 or so giant pandas in the wild.

The May 2008 quake that killed nearly 70,000 people and left 4.3 million homeless also wiped out nearly a quarter of giant panda habitat, turning bamboo forest into bare land, according to a 2009 study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. Fragmentation of the remaining habitat was expected to hinder panda reproduction. The article estimated that the earthquake would affect 60 percent of the panda population in some way.

Some of those pandas were brought to the Chengdu research center for physical and in some cases mental treatment. Pandas startle easily and tend to stay put when traumatized, instead of fleeing the area of danger. When brought to the research center, pandas are tended by humans who feed and care for them. At least one such panda w

as assessed for psychological trauma, treated for physical injuries, and returned to the wild.

Even the large number of pandas born at the Chengdu station brought challenges. Of the triplets, only one survived, though both twins born on August 28 have moved on to the cuddly stage. The problem, a reserve official said, is that baby pandas are even more helpless than human ones – they can’t urinate or defecate on their own for their first six months – and panda mothers aren’t able to care for more than one pup at a time. So while the panda mom is tending to one twin, a human caretaker tends to another, and the twins must be periodically swapped so that each one gets maternal attention and nursing.

Returning pandas to the wild is also tricky. There are various groups of pandas in the forests of western Sichuan, and those that have been in research centers may have picked up pathogens that could endanger wild populations. One Chengdu expert said animals that have been in the center may be sent to their native habitat but kept separate at first from wild pandas.


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