WOLONG, China -- The bamboo forests around this steep mountain gorge were to be a refuge for one of the world's most appealing animals, a safe haven where China would protect the giant panda from extinction.
But this reserve high in Sichuan province's Qionglai Mountains -- and other Chinese efforts to save the panda -- have failed to forestall the species' impending demise, Western experts who have worked here say.
China's panda-protection work has been plagued by inadequate funding, mismanagement of the animal's habitat, low-quality research and in-fighting between government ministries, the scientists say.
Scarce funds that could have been used to protect wild pandas have been misspent on increasing pens for captive pandas, which are being filled with animals unnecessarily taken from the wild, the experts say.
A computer analysis at an international seminar last year projected that, if current trends continue, the giant panda will be extinct within three decades, says Miles Roberts, deputy head of research at Washington's National Zoo. Only 700 to 1,000 wild pandas remain.
Foreign experts agree that this fatal trend has been hastened by the world's fascination with the panda, which has led to Chinese and foreign profiteering from rent-a-panda schemes.
The profits largely have not been used to protect wild pandas. China once vowed to limit rentals, but a new quest here for panda profits is evident in plans to begin leasing this month two animals to the Columbus (Ohio) Zoo.
"The greed and indifference to pandas is heartbreaking," says George B. Schaller, science director of the conservation arm of the New York Zoological Society and one of the world's top panda experts. "No one thinks of the panda first."
Adds Donald Reid, a University of British Columbia researcher: "If China does not get its act together soon, the species will disappear."
China's Ministry of Forestry, which controls all panda reserves, would not respond to questions for this article. Beijing University would not allow an interview with China's leading panda expert, Pan Wenshi.
Wolong scientists mainly blame the panda's decline at their reserve on a natural occurrence, the 1983 death of one of the area's two types of bamboo, pandas' main food. Since then, 111 wild pandas have been found dead throughout China, a recent Chinese report said.
But at Wolong there is hope the panda can be saved. "I think the panda has a good future with more scientific research," says Qiu Xianming, a Wolong researcher.
However, the panda's future may depend less on research than on whether China carries out a recently approved $55 million, 10-year plan to create new panda reserves, expand its 13 existing reserves and link some of them with new bamboo corridors.
This plan has been long sought by international conservation groups, but Mr. Schaller says, "China has yet to put real dedication and will power into saving the panda."
Virtually alone among Western experts who have worked here, Ken Johnson, a University of Tennessee ecologist, says such criticism is unwarranted.
"Foreigners don't understand the constraints faced by China with only 3 percent of the world's forests and almost a quarter of its population," he says. "You can't tell them not to cut down their forests. They're on the right track, according to their resource constraints and political system."
The panda's survival depends almost entirely on China, for which the panda is a national symbol, a diplomatic tool and TC source of great prestige. All wild pandas are found here, less than half in reserves. China also has about 90 of the world's about 105 captive pandas.
Wolong, a 770-square-mile area about 70 miles northwest of Sichuan's capital of Chengdu, is China's largest and most closely supervised panda reserve. It has perhaps 10 percent of all wild pandas -- as well as 20 pandas in pens, the world's largest captive population.
But many Western experts say Wolong has been a showcase of what's been wrong with China's panda-protection efforts:
* Habitat mismanagement.
The world's captive panda population is too small and reproduces too slowly to be self-sustaining. The species can only survive in the wild. But destruction of its habitats in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces continues, primarily from forest cutting by residents.
Fifty percent of the panda's habitat has been lost since the 1970s. Shrinking territory has isolated many animals in groups of less than 50. This could result in the collapse of the panda's gene pool, leading to lower fertility and higher cub mortality rates.
"This is a little piece of panda heaven on earth," says Dr. Sue Mainka, a Canadian veterinarian at Wolong. "If they could just learn to leave it alone, the pandas would do just fine."
* Panda poaching.
Even in patrolled areas such as Wolong, pandas are still hunted. Their skins, said to have been of little value in the past to area residents, can bring more than $30,000 in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Pandas also are accidentally killed in traps set for other animals.
China admitted last year it had caught 270 poachers and smugglers in recent years, including at least three sentenced to death.
That has not stopped poaching. Chinese forestry officials have told a Western diplomat in Beijing that they know of 12 pandas killed last year -- among Wolong's population of no more than 100 animals.
* Penned pandas.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (known as the World Wildlife Fund in the United States) spent about $1 million to build a panda research station run by China's Ministry of Forestry at Wolong.
In nearby Chengdu, China's Ministry of Construction, which operates Chinese zoos and thereby owns most captive pandas, plans to spend $4.5 million to expand by four times a second research center that already has 16 animals and is expected to soon have 30.
The increasing number of panda enclosures has encouraged reserve managers to fill them with animals brought in from the wild under the excuse that they are ill or hungry. At Wolong over the past 12 years, only two pandas have been returned to the wild.
This "reflects a view that the animal is somehow safer in captivity than in the wild," Mr. Reid says. "It is driven by the desire for revenue."
Rentals to foreign zoos make captive pandas extremely valuable. China, which halted leasing the animals in the late 1980s, is again encouraging rentals -- even though such commercial use violates the major international pact on endangered species.
Rentals can interfere with panda socialization, believed to be a key to their reproduction. China has not used much of the revenues for habitat protection.
This month, the Columbus Zoo expects to receive from China two pandas, both males not yet of breeding age.
The move has caused an uproar in the conservation community. The World Wildlife Fund has filed suit to stop it. The American Association of Zoological Gardens and Parks has threatened to suspend the zoo's membership on ethical grounds.
Columbus says it wants the pandas for the city's quinquecentennial celebration of America's founding. The two pandas will draw an extra half-million visitors to the Columbus Zoo, says zoo manager Gerald Borin.
China will receive from $300,000 for a three-month rental to more than $1 million for a longer term, he says, money that is to go to habitat protection.
But officials at the Chengdu research center say they hope to finance at least a third of their ambitious expansion program from such foreign exhibitions.
"We should not put any more money into China unless we're confident that they're doing the right thing," says Donald Bruning, chairman of the U.S. zoo association's ethics board. "As long as the pandas are so valuable as short-term rentals, there's no incentive for China to carry out long-term plans for their survival in the wild."
* Poor science.
Pandas are a slowly reproducing species in the wild. Captive pandas are finicky breeders at best, and about 60 percent of their cubs die quickly. The Wolong breeding station has had just three births in 12 years, with only one still surviving.
The Beijing and Chengdu zoos have had more success, but China's overall record is sad.
"They've been breeding captive animals since 1963, and still don't have a self-sustaining population," Mr. Schaller says.
The reasons include competition between the forestry and construction ministries that has blocked sharing of scientific data, an unwillingness of top Chinese researchers to live in primitive conditions at panda reserves, and too great a focus on artificial insemination rather than on natural breeding.
The Mexico City zoo has the world's best record of naturally breeding pandas. Experts say that's because the zoo allows its pandas to socialize with each other year- round, interaction believed to be a prerequisite for successful mating.
But captive pandas in China are rarely allowed to mingle freely with each other. At Wolong, a special area for this purpose is seldom used; Chinese scientists there say they fear that the males will fight and injure each other or females, as they sometimes do in the wild.
"Each animal is worth so much money to China that no one will take responsibility for experimenting with new living arrangements," Mr. Reid says.
Wolong's scientists "are trying very hard, but they are several generations behind," says another U.S. researcher there, who requested anonymity. "I was appalled by what I saw."
Also, some Wolong scientists espouse a highly questionable view of the panda as "a living fossil" naturally bound for extinction and only kept alive through such human efforts as rescuing wild animals and artificial insemination of captive animals.
Foreign experts say that's nonsense.
"It's simply scandalous to blame the decline on the species when the problem is human encroachment on its habitat," Mr. Schaller says. "It's typical of the garbage that China has been putting out."