Funeral held for panda killed by earthquake

June 10, 2008 5:55:20 AM PDT
Nearly a month after China's devastating earthquake, the Wolong Nature Reserve held a funeral Tuesday for a panda that was crushed in the temblor.

The world famous panda center was badly damaged by the May 12 quake but officials initially thought all 64 pandas had survived. They later discovered that two were missing.

Nine-year-old Mao Mao, the mother of five at the breeding center, was found Monday, her body crushed by a wall of her enclosure when the river behind it swelled with landslide debris.

On Tuesday, panda keepers and other workers placed her remains in a small wooden crate and wheeled her quietly to a patch of ground outside the breeding center where a freshly dug hole waited.

The center's director, Zhang Hemin, stood with his cap in hand and then shoveled in a few spades of dirt. Mao Mao's keeper, He Changgui, stepped forward, crying, and placed two apples and a piece of bread by the covered grave. There were three minutes of silence.

As the others left, the director of the U.S.-based Pandas International, Suzanne Braden put her arm around He.

"You must look after her babies, OK?" she said. "And their babies."

He nodded. "I will go back to see her everyday," he said.

Forty-seven pandas continue to live at Wolong, while one other panda, Xiao Xiao, remains missing.

The endangered panda is revered as a kind of national mascot in China. About 1,590 pandas live in the wild, mostly in Sichuan and the neighboring province of Shaanxi. Another 180 have been bred in captivity.

The nature reserve was heavily damaged by the quake, which was centered just 20 miles away in the heart of Sichuan province's mountainous panda country. Five Wolong staff members were killed in the quake. Most staffers, tourists and pandas were outside at the time.

Nearly 70,000 people were killed, and more than 5 million were left homeless by the 7.9-magnitude quake.

Some of Wolong's pandas have been moved to another breeding center in Sichuan's provincial capital, Chengdu, and eight were flown to Beijing for a previously scheduled six-month stay at the Beijing Zoo for the Olympics.

The center will have to be relocated to a new site because of safety issues, said Huang Yan, deputy director of research, but it will remain within the confines of Wolong Nature Reserve, which is located in a damp, narrow valley several hours' drive from Chengdu.

He, Mao Mao's keeper, returned from the grave with red eyes. He had been the panda's only keeper since she was 3 years old. He would speak to her in the local Sichuan dialect as he worked.

"It's like you could say something and she would understand," he said. "If you were happy, she was happy too."


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