YA'AN, Sichuan - There may be more sick wild giant pandas this winter after the major earthquake hit the famed animals' habitat and caused their food shortage, experts said.
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"It will be a great challenge for the panda research or breeding centers to receive more wild pandas," said Zhang Guiquan, assistant director of the Wolong Nature Reserve Administration.
Wild giant pandas, which live at altitudes from 2500 to 3200 meters, usually come to lower-altitude regions to look for food as their staple food, bamboo, is covered by snow. Some of the pandas will "ask local residents for help" if they are really starved or ill, Zhang said.
He said usually four to five wild pandas are found in the Sichuan Province each winter from December to March.
"They came down the mountains so early this year and that's why we predict there will be a worse situation for the wild pandas this winter," Zhang said, adding that the main reason was food shortage.
In late October, there were two wild pandas found by local farmers, one in Wolong and the other in Qingchuan County, both most greatly affected areas in the 8.0-magnitude earthquake which jolted southwest China's Sichuan Province on May 12.
One of the pandas has been moved to the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP) in Ya'an City, which was less affected by the quake, to receive further treatment.
Most of the wild pandas, when found by residents, suffered from nutrition deficiencies and anaemia and some of them had other diseases, said Tang Chunxiang, chief vet of the CCRCGP, which also accepted 53 pandas living in captivity from the Wolong Nature Reserve.
"Some of them may carry unknown bacteria or have infectious diseases, which will endanger the pandas in captivity," Tang said. "So we have to provide them with single rooms to separate them from our own pandas."
The center has a lot of pandas now as 13 cubs have been born since the earthquake.
Although there have been 26 pandas transferred to other provinces, including Beijing, Fujian, and Yunnan, there are still 62 living in the center currently.
"The food is enough, but we need more houses for them as adult pandas like to live alone," Tang said.
The center originally has 18 sets of enclosures for pandas. A total of 18 temporary shelters were built after the quake and 20 permanent houses are still under construction and are expected to be completed by the end of this year.
"We have to get prepared to receive more sick wild pandas," Zhang Guiquan said.
One panda in the Wolong reserve, the largest reserve area for pandas in China, died and one went missing in the massive quake. There are still seven pandas, who are one to two years old and can be raised together, remaining in Wolong, but they have been moved to a safe place, Zhang said.
Sarah Bexell, director of conservation education and communication of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, said the pandas that have been affected by the quake are fine now.
"The panda is very easy-going," she said. "The impact of traveling may be greater for them than the earthquake."
However, it's not clear when the pandas can go back to their former home, the Wolong reserve, which is less than ten kilometers away from the epicenter of the quake.
Efforts to rebuild the reserve and the panda's habitat is under way, according to Zhang.