Pandas, Tourists Safe After Quake; Local Towns Leveled

Christine Dell'Amore
National Geographic News
May 14, 2008
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.

The 86 captive adult giant pandas remain at the breeding center and were unharmed by the disaster. (See photos of the Wolong pandas.)

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.

(See photos of the earthquake's destruction.)

Massive Landslides

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.

That same terrain, in addition to massive landslides and aftershocks from Monday's earthquake, has hindered efforts to reach survivors in two townships, Genda and Wolong, where the majority of homes have been leveled, according to a report from an official from Wolong's captive panda center, which was communicated to USCEF's Chinese staff.

A graduate student from Beijing, who works on ecological issues in Wolong, reported to USCEF's Brody that news relayed via satellite phone suggests the "general status [in the townships] is very serious indeed."

The student said that clean water and medicine are in short supply, with the water supply "paralyzed" in at least one village.

But food is being airdropped now to Wolong, the student added, and medicine will reportedly arrive when Wolong Administrator Zhang Hemin arrives in the region on a military helicopter on Thursday.

Rescuers must enter the area on foot, as a new national highway just built through the Wolong reserve has been mostly obliterated, Brody said.

"The one link between Wolong and the outside world has been sealed off," he said.

Heaviest Toll

Brody, whose USCEF staff are currently the only international group in the Wolong region, said the heaviest devastation and worst human casualties have occurred at the edges of the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuary.

"Tragedy has struck hardest in these heavily populated communities close to Wolong and the epicenter," Brody said.

There could be "tremendous loss of life" in the neighboring towns of Yingxiou and Wenchuan, east of Wolong, as well as in Beichuan county northeast of Wolong, he said.

Xinhua reported Wednesday that 7,700 people were killed in Wenchuan, but it wasn't clear if that figure was included in the larger toll of 12,000.

Brody learned Tuesday that 19 villagers near Wolong died when their stone houses collapsed, but there have not been updates since.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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