The news from here in the heart of China's earthquake zone remains heartbreakingly grim. Miraculous tales of survivors pulled alive after days under rubble are dwindling; the death toll is soaring. Amid all the tragedy and devastation, though, there is some less dire news from the quake zone: China's "celebrity pandas" survived the quake, according to Chinese volunteers who visited the famous Wolong Nature Reserve just 18 miles from the epicenter.
The reserve is devoted to China's famous giant panda, a protected species that has enormous iconic value to local residents. The pandas' home didn't escape unscathed: huge boulders rained down onto the research center there from adjacent mountains, killing five members of a security detail that had guarded against poachers and more than 40 others in the vicinity.Several research personnel were injured as well, and devastation around the panda breeding center was extensive. However, a group of about a dozen intrepid travelers who ferried supplies to the reserve in four-wheel-drive vehicles-a grueling 11-hour drive on what used to be a winding two-lane road-has brought back the most up-to-date report yet on the condition of the pandas.
Though all of the reserve's 60-some pandas were initially reported safe, late last week the State Forestry Administration said three were "missing," according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. While grim, the situation at Wolong was improving. "The first batch of bamboo, apples and veterinary medicine for the pandas, as well as food and tents urgently needed by staff, arrived at the Wolong Reserve Saturday night," Xinhua quoted a forestry spokesman as saying.
In fact, NEWSWEEK has learned that right after the quake a total of six pandas went missing after falling boulders smashed the walls of enclosures that had kept them captive. Scientists were especially worried because two of the missing beasts, named Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, had been carefully selected and raised from infancy in preparation for being sent to Taiwan. The beasts were to be a goodwill gift from one rival government to another; China and Taiwan are only now enjoying the fruits of rapprochement after nearly six decades of enmity. (Beijing considers self-governing Taiwan a renegade that must be reunited with the mainland eventually, by force if needed.)
That Wolong's two celebrity pandas were missing in the disaster saddened many Chinese and Taiwanese, who had participated by the millions in a contest to name the animals via the Web and instant-messaging. The winning names, Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, are a pun on the Chinese word for reunion.
Now we know Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan are safe, according to photographer Leo Chen, who was among the Chinese volunteers who reached Wolong. After fleeing during the quake, one panda wandered back on May 14, and the second returned May 17. There was no food to be found in the wild, so they ambled back to the ruins of their enclosure, now a pile of rubble. (The center's pandas are fed bamboo imported from other areas of China.) Two others returned too, Wolong assistant director Li Desheng told Chen, but two remain missing. It is unclear whether they can survive in the wild.
OK. About now many of you are no doubt wondering, Who cares about pandas when as many as 50,000 people are dead and 5 million are homeless? Here's why news from the panda center matters.
First of all, it matters to the Chinese people. When news of the center's casualties and the missing pandas emerged, volunteers scrambled to buy up medicines and hospital supplies to bring to the stricken facility. When they left Wolong they transported a number of injured research personnel out of the disaster zone in their SUVs.
Meanwhile volunteer medics remain at the center, assisting injured researchers. The Chinese military is also on the scene, choppering in food and supplies. Last Monday five truckloads of bamboo were delivered to feed the 60 animals. (Eight so-called "Olympics pandas," groomed for the Games spotlight in August, were brought safely to a panda center in Chengdu earlier.)
Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, moreover, are symbols of cross-straits reconciliation, giving hope to Chinese mainlanders and Taiwanese alike that decades of hostility could become a thing of the past. Many Taiwanese were captivated by the celebrity pandas and have been eagerly awaiting their arrival in Taipei.
Chinese also see the panda as a national icon-one of the five Olympic mascots is a panda-and as a symbol of Chinese efforts to protect endangered species. Only about 1,590 live in the wild, mostly in Sichuan and neighboring Shaanxi provinces; about 180 have been bred in captivity. The panda's cause has been taken up by Chinese environmentalists, who argue for a more ecologically sound mind-set in China, where blind and headlong economic growth has blighted the environment and poisoned the air in many cities.
What's important is not just that dozens of the cuddly black-and-white animals survived, but rather that ordinary Chinese citizens-not just the government-could pitch in to help them. News of the plight of the pandas and the scientists studying them are a source of hope to ordinary citizens at a time when Chinese want to be reassured that humans and nature can exist in harmony.