A Rare Glimpse of Quake-Hit Pandas

When the ground shook and the mountainside gave way last May in China's southwestern Sichuan Province, China's national treasure and Olympic mascot -- the giant panda -- was put in grave danger.

Dozens of pandas at the Wolong Panda Reserve in Wenchuan County, the epicenter of the May 12 earthquake that killed nearly 70,000 people and left 18,000 missing, clutched each other during the quake while others grasped for trees in their immediate vicinity.

When the earth stabilized, government officials were unable to reach the reserve staff.

"The small pandas, those less than 1 year old, huddled together at the top of the trees," said Professor Huang Yan, Deputy Chief Engineer of Wolong Panda Reserve and earthquake eye-witness.


"After the earthquake, six pandas ran away. Their [habitat] walls had collapsed and some of them did not return."

Today, the pandas at Wolong Panda Reserve are attempting to recover, and they seem to be thriving. There are approximately 1,600 pandas left in the world and they are found only in China's Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi Provinces. About 1,400 live in the area affected by the Sichuan earthquake.

Three months after the quake, in a "Good Morning America" exclusive, ABC News gained very rare access to these pandas. We traveled to the panda reserve center in Ya'an, outside of Chengdu, to check on their recovery.


Pandas Spooked, Shaken by Quake

When the earthquake struck on May 12, the pandas at the Wolong Panda Reserve were immediately spooked. The quake, which registered a magnitude of 7.9 and killed five security guards at the reserve, rocked the walls of the pandas' quarters, leaving the surviving pandas visibly shaken.

"Many of cubs clutched onto one another instead of answering their caretakers' calls, which is very unlike them," Huang explained to ABC News. "The caretakers actually had to go up to them and coax them out of the trees."

"For days afterwards, they were very nervous. They would not eat and even the slightest amount of noise caused them to scurry around and run away," Huang recalled.


While most of the pandas recovered, not all survived the quake.

Mao Mao, a nine-year-old mother of five cubs at the reserve, was found dead on the Monday after the quake.

"Her body [was] crushed by a wall in her enclosure," Huang told ABC News. "Another one disappeared and is still missing.

Slow Road to Recovery

As Wolong rebuilds alongside the people of Wenchuan County, the recent arrival of new panda cubs has brought a sense of life and renewal to a province whose reconstruction is likely to cost a staggering $147 billion, according to a report in China Daily, a state-run English-language newspaper.


Inside the reserve, the panda cubs are kept in a separate building from their older counterparts. Few people are allowed to visit them at such a young age to prevent them from inadvertently contracting diseases. To access the cubs, ABC News was instructed to put on sterile gloves and booties to keep the outside dirt at bay.

In the cubs' habitat, half a dozen baby pandas peer out playfully, projecting a wildly different picture from the devastated quake scene, three months ago.

Currently, there are five litters of cubs and nine new baby pandas. Four of the litters were twins.

"These [adult] pandas were all specially selected to breed and underwent artificial [in] vitro fertilization," Huang told ABC News.

Mothers are typically 100 kg when they give birth -- dramatically larger than their cubs, which weigh in at approximately 100 grams at birth and fit easily into the palms of the caretakers hands.

"They lasted through the earthquake and now have given birth," Huang explained with a tinge of both happiness and relief. Panda caregivers feared that the cubs, the most fragile members of the Wolong panda family, would be lost in the earthquake.

According to Huang, four baby pandas have been born since the Sichuan earthquake. Two have been born since the Olympics began. "One is just 5 days old," Huang told ABC News.

Panda Diplomacy

"In the zoological world, we call them a living fossil," Huang said of the giant panda.

Huang explained that the giant panda is highly valuable in terms of scientific research and observational purposes, not to mention the furry creatures are rather pleasant to look at.

But pandas are also a "living fossil" in international relations.

The role of the panda in the Beijing Olympics is a continuation of an Olympic legacy that has helped shape China's diplomatic relations. The panda has played a symbolic role in breaking down international barriers for the People's Republic.

The first pandas ever sent abroad were sent by China in 1984 to Los Angeles in celebration of the Summer Olympics there. Two more were flown to Winter Games in Calgary where a record 1.35 million people visited them at the Canadian zoo.

China's pandas have also played a role in building friendships and bilateral diplomatic relations.

But China's pandas, will no longer leave home for good.

In September 2007, China has halted its long-time goodwill program of giving its endangered pandas to foreign countries. China now only lends pandas for the purposes of breeding and biological research.

After all, Huang said, "Pandas are China's national treasure."