National Geographic News
Tourists trapped in a remote earthquake-stricken nature preserve in central China have been confirmed safe today, but nearby mountain villages have been almost completely wiped out, observers say.
Twelve American tourists in Wolong—whose fate was unknown for two days—are safe in a local hotel, WWF spokesperson Kerry Zobor confirmed to National Geographic News today. The travelers had been visiting the famed Wolong National Nature Reserve, home to the largest population of captive pandas in the world.
Thirty-one British tourists at Wolong were also evacuated to the provincial capital of Chengdu, the country's state-run media agency, Xinhua, reported.
An unknown number of panda cubs were moved to the largest village in the area, Shawan, 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) upstream from the breeding center.
Phone lines in the mountainous region are still out, and only sporadic contact has been made through satellite phones. In Chengdu, a radio station operated around the clock, reading text messages sent by survivors of stricken areas to let relatives know they are alive, the Associated Press reported.
But with the pandas and tourists secure, efforts to reach Wolong have now become secondary to rescue operations in secluded settlements nearby, Marc Brody, president of the U.S.-China Environmental Fund (USCEF), told National Geographic News.
Brody has received funding from the National Geographic Society for panda conservation research. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
The magnitude 7.9 quake—the worst in three decades—may have killed 15,000, with tens of thousands still missing or buried under rubble.
About 5,000 people live in the 770 square miles (2,000 square kilometers) of the nature reserve, where rugged, steep terrain has kept them mostly isolated from the rest of China.