Sunday, March 22, 2009

BEIJING (AP) - Eight pandas were being readied for their journey back to central China on Sunday, ending a 10-month stay at the Beijing Zoo that was extended after their nature reserve was badly damaged in last year’s massive earthquake, state television said.

CCTV showed panda keepers luring the bears into individual cages with carrot sticks and bits of steamed cornbread. The cages were strapped onto rolling platforms for loading onto a plane.

The report said the pandas would leave Beijing on Sunday evening for their new home in Sichuan province. Their former home, the world-famous Wolong reserve was nearly destroyed in the May 12 earthquake.

Their visit to the capital, which was planned before the quake, was meant to add cheer to the Olympics in August.

The pandas have been closely watched because they seemed nervous after the quake, sometimes eating and sleeping less. The Wolong reserve’s location in a damp, narrow valley several hours’ drive from Chengdu, the Sichuan capital, made it vulnerable during the 7.9-magnitude quake, which sent boulders the size of cars crashing down. Most of the staffers, tourists and pandas were outside at the time.

The temblor left nearly 90,000 people dead or missing, including five Wolong staffers.

The pandas were being flown to Chengdu before being transferred to Bifengxia Giant Panda Base in the town of Ya’an.

CCTV said the pandas’ new home features an air-conditioned indoor area and a large outdoor area with play facilities designed to resemble their natural habitat.

About 1,590 pandas are living in the wild, mostly in Sichuan and the western province of Shaanxi. An additional 180 have been bred in captivity.

The Wolong reserve has leased pandas to zoos for breeding, including the San Diego Zoo. Zoo Atlanta’s panda duo, which produced cub Mei Lan in 2006, are from the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding about a three-hour drive from Wolong.

Wolong is part of efforts to breed giant pandas in hopes of increasing the species’ chances of survival.

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