Panda food shortages feared after heavy snowfall in southwest China

16:42, March 22, 2011      

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The heaviest snow to hit southwest China's Sichuan Province in 20 years may have caused food shortages for wild giant pandas that roam its mountains, a panda expert said Tuesday.

On Sunday and Monday, a rare blizzard hit the mountains of Wolong County, a major habitat for wild giant pandas.

As of Monday night, the snow measured at least 22 cm on the ground, said Zhang Hemin, head of China Giant Panda Protection and Research Center in Wolong.

The center, formerly based in Wolong, moved to Bifeng Gorge in the mountains of Ya'an City near the provincial capital Chengdu after a devastating earthquake in May 2008 destroyed some of its facilities.

Only six of its pandas were receiving wild training, or training on how to live in the wild after they are released from captivity, in a semi-wild, but enclosed area in the mountains of Wolong, Zhang said. "None of them were injured in the blizzard."

Zhang and his colleagues anticipated no immediate risk for these pandas, as zoologists stealthily checked on them and provided them with food when necessary -- an effort to protect them from hunger and other risks without disturbing their "wild" life.

"But the hidden panda population in the wilderness of the mountains may not be as lucky," said Zhang. "They may have trouble rummaging for food now that the mountain forests are covered with a thick layer of snow and some bamboo is damaged."

Though the blizzard ended Monday night, the weather bureau has forecast a new round of snow in the coming week.

"We're watching the weather closely and when the snow melts a little, we'll send forestry workers to check on the wild pandas," said Zhang.

About 145 wild pandas are believed to roam in the wild mountains, according to a previous survey conducted by Zhang and his colleagues.

Officials with the Wolong Nature Reserve Administration said the blizzard destroyed about 2,000 hectares, or 2 percent, of forests in the reserve, including 80 hectares of bamboo, the giant panda's staple food.

The blizzard also disrupted road traffic and power supplies in the county seat and forced 192 primary school students to stay home.

Source: Xinhua
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