China's massive earthquake this month killed as many as 80,000 people, leveled over 400,000 homes, and threatened dams and lakes, bringing out an unusual, grassroots goodwill in the process. It also affected a number of crucial sanctuaries for China's unofficial mascot, and one of the world's most beloved (and threatened) animals: the giant panda. While most pandas are safe at the famed Wolong Panda Reserve, which is part of a 7-sanctuary UNESCO World Heritage site, the sanctuary is so badly damaged that it will probably have to be relocated, staff told state media today. Nearly half of the base's 86 pandas have been evacuated to another sanctuary in Sichuan, eight have been sent to Beijing on a previously-arranged Olympic trip. and, after the capture of five escaped pandas, one is still unaccounted for. As Marc Brody, president of the U.S.-China Environmental Fund (USCEF), pointed out to National Geographic, a relocation--no spot has been named yet--would be a valuable opportunity to reconsider the way pandas are kept in captivity. The giant panda, of which there may be over 1,600 in the wild, is notoriously bad at breeding in captivity, perhaps because panda breeding grounds do not replicate the panda's natural habitat (this is also thought to be why Xiang Xiang, a panda released into the wild last year did not survive). Also a concern are supplies of bamboo, panda's favorite food: because the earthquake made roads between the Wolong base and nearby bamboo supplies impassable, the government had to arrange an emergency food shipment of about 5 tons of bamboo for the 47 pandas still at the reserve. One suggestion for a new spot: pandas tend to like areas that are in the mountains, and with a plentiful supply of bamboo.
The earthquake, which struck during the "love"-prone phase of some of the pandas' reproductive period, caused the pandas to freeze in trees and stare at the sky, resisting their handlers' entreaties to come down. Their unusual behavior reportedly began prior to the quake -- one group rose from a listless spell and began to pace back and forth -- leading to speculation that they knew that a natural disaster was immanent -- a skill that would put them in league with the Thai elephants that supposedly predicted the Asian tsunami of 2004 minutes before it struck.
Regardless of pandas' ability to predict disaster, their already critically endangered status could make captive giant pandas especially vulnerable to disaster. Aid groups in the Sichuan area, like Friends of World Heritage, have now turned their attention to restoring their manmade habitats. And, in a revision of panda diplomacy (or simply panda goodwill), zoos in Scotland and the US , which pay $1 million a year to borrow pandas from China, are pitching in to help in the rebuilding process.