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Pandas Facing Disease, Food Shortages

This year's outbreak of contagious diseases among giant pandas has emphasized the need for more measures to ensure the bears' future safety, delegates to the 18th Annual Conference of the Chinese Committee of Breeding Techniques for the Giant Panda, have said.

Zhang Zhihe, the committee's chairman, said to avoid possible future outbreaks of highly infectious diseases, such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and bird flu, it is critical to do more research on the supervision, prevention and treatment of such conditions -- as well as so far undiagnosed diseases -- and establish an emergency response system.

Speaking at the five-day conference, which ended yesterday in the Sichuan provincial capital, Yang Xuyu, deputy chief of Sichuan Wildlife Management Station, said about 20 panda cubs are bred in captivity every year in China.

But if the bears live together in confined spaces, contagious diseases can quickly spread.

A delegate who asked not to be named said 10 pandas at the Wolong Nature Reserve this year became infected with a rare contagious disease from which two of them later died.

Vets from the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where Zhang is based, worked with staff from Wolong to treat the sick pandas, but failed to diagnose the ailment, he said.

Yang said that in an effort to prevent the spread of potentially fatal diseases, additional enclosures for the bears will be built at both Chengdu and Wolong.

The State Forestry Administration recently gave Wolong 20 million yuan (US$2.7 million) to build 40 new dens some 20 km from its existing ones. The Chengdu base is currently considering possible sites for its new compounds, he said.

Yang also warned of the danger of bamboo flowering, which, since 2005, has expanded to an area of 24,000 hectares in Sichuan -- about 1.4 percent of the edible bamboo in the province, he told China Daily.

Nine varieties of bamboo have been seen flowering, which account for about 30 percent of the varieties eaten by pandas.

In the 1980s, in the mountainous regions of Sichuan, extensive blossoming of the arrow bamboo -- the pandas' favorite -- led to many bears dying of disease and starvation, Yang said.

This year, to avoid a recurrence, the Sichuan provincial forestry bureau has developed an emergency response plan and asked local forestry bureaux to implement it in the event of extensive blossoming.

Yang said that if 15 percent of the total bamboo area or 100 percent of a single variety is found to be flowering, all bears in that area will be inoculated and/or relocated to ensure their safety.

Often referred to as living fossils, giant pandas are found mainly in Sichuan, which is home to about 1,200 of them, or 76 percent of the country's total.

More than 80 officials and experts from animal protection organizations in eight countries attended this year's conference.

(China Daily November 16, 2007)

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