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Honors for Mao Mao the panda killed in China quake
China Earthquake Pa 5725111
Chinese panda keeper He Changgui, center front, and his colleagues at China Conservative and Research Center for the Giant Panda mourn for panda Mao Mao which died in the May 12 earthquake at Mao Mao's funeral in Wolong, China's southwest Sichuan province, Tuesday, June 10, 2008. The nine-year-old Mao Mao was finally found Monday and dug out Tuesday, almost a month after the devastating earthquake, crushed by a wall of her enclosure as the river nearby swelled with landslide debris. - photo by Associated Press
    WOLONG, China — Mao Mao the panda’s remains were gently laid in a wooden crate and wheeled to a patch of ground in China’s famed Wolong Nature Reserve where a freshly dug grave awaited.
    The center’s director stood cap in hand and shoveled in a few spades of dirt. Then Mao Mao’s keeper stepped forward crying, and arranged two apples and a piece of bread by the grave. Three minutes of silence followed as workers gathered around the grave.
    Nearly a month after she was crushed to death when China’s devastating earthquake collapsed the wall of her enclosure, 9-year-old Mao Mao was laid to rest Tuesday in a quiet corner of the Wolong panda breeding center.
    The facility was badly damaged by the May 12 quake but officials initially thought all 64 pandas had survived. Then they discovered two were missing. Mao Mao’s body was discovered Monday, buried under debris.
    As He Changgui, Mao Mao’s keeper, turned away red-eyed after Tuesday’s burial, the director of U.S.-based Pandas International, Suzanne Braden, put her arm around him.
    ‘‘You must look after her babies, OK?’’ said Braden, who had arrived a day earlier to survey the quake damage and help in the recovery. ‘‘And their babies.’’
    He nodded. ‘‘I will go back to see her everyday,’’ he said.
    The loss of the panda, a mother of five, was a blow to the breeding program at Wolong, which continues to struggle to recover. The quake was centered just 20 miles away in the heart of Sichuan province’s mountainous panda country, and five Wolong staff members were killed.
    The endangered panda is revered as a national symbol in China, where about 1,600 pandas live in the wild, mostly in Sichuan and the neighboring province of Shaanxi. Another 180 have been bred in captivity.
    For the staff at Wolong, Mao Mao’s loss was all the more acute because she was killed in her prime, something that rarely happens, said David Wildt, who heads the Center for Species Survival at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington.
    ‘‘I don’t think it’s surprising there’s a great deal of concern over the loss of this animal,’’ said Wildt, who has worked closely with the Chinese panda program for more than a decade.
    ‘‘The people who work at Wolong are completely dedicated to those animals. Most of the animals have been born there. The way they are raised, they are handled a great deal. People get to know these animals. They’re all named and have their own personalities.’’
    More than 69,000 people were killed by the quake, which left 5 million people homeless, crushing buildings and tossing down boulders the size of cars. Frequent aftershocks continue to rattle the area.
    Wedged in a narrow valley a few hours drive from the capital of Sichuan province, Wolong was pummeled by landslides on both sides. Panda enclosures were smashed, and the entry gate for visitors was buried under stones, forcing the 30 tourists there at the time to escape by climbing a ladder through the center’s clinic.
    Wolong’s baby pandas, 14 of them, played outdoors Tuesday, less than 30 yards from a huge pile of debris left by a landslide. They had been at the same spot when the earthquake hit.
    ‘‘They were so nervous when it happened,’’ said Huang Yan, the deputy director of research. ‘‘I found seven of them huddled together.’’
    The center remains closed to visitors, and Huang said it might not open again until next year. Six pandas have been sent to another panda reserve in Sichuan, and eight have been sent to Beijing for an Olympics stay at the Beijing Zoo that had been planned before the quake.
    Now one of the biggest questions is this year’s breeding program. The quake hit during what the Chinese delicately call the ‘‘falling in love period,’’ — a 24- to 72-hour window each spring when female pandas are fertile — and 18 females had been artificially inseminated. Pandas are famously difficult to breed, and no one knows what the effects of the quake will be.
    ‘‘We still don’t know how many are pregnant,’’ Huang said. ‘‘We still don’t know what will happen.’’
    Also shaken in the quake were the fragile collections of semen from more than 15 pandas, both dead and alive, meant to help the species’ diversity. The samples are kept in aging freezers that are still run, like the rest of the center, on a generator — which broke down briefly Tuesday afternoon.
    ‘‘The first things they asked for after the quake were freezers,’’ Braden said. ‘‘With only 1,600 pandas left in the wild, genetically every sperm is important.’’
    With the funeral over, the center turned quiet Tuesday. Braden distributed donations of a panda stretcher, baby bottles, syringes and drugs.
    Mao Mao’s keeper, He, had cared for the panda since she was 3, speaking 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.’’
    He and the rest of the staff now mark the days since the quake by little improvements at Wolong: the return of cell phone service. The first open road to the outside world, less than two weeks ago. The crucial truckloads of bamboo for the pandas, one every five days.
    But the breeding center can’t stay here, Huang said. It has to move to a safer location in the Wolong reserve, with more room to grow for the baby pandas.
    ‘‘This place is dangerous,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s amazing that we only lost one panda.’’ Another, named Xiao Xiao, remains missing.
    As he spoke, there was a rumbling sound. Huang, in his office with broken windows, rose from his chair and looked up at the hills.
    ‘‘Aftershock,’’ he said. ‘‘We get one every day.’’

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