By Martin Fackler
CHENGDU RESEARCH BASE, China — Three-week-old twins Shen-Shen and Ao-Ao are tiny enough to curl up in your hand. But they and a half-dozen panda cubs like them are the key to an effort to save one of the world’s rarest animals.
The twins were born July 13 after their mother was impregnated by artificial insemination at this research center in southwestern China. Thirteen other giant pandas are pregnant and expected to give birth within a few months — part of a campaign to rescue China’s national symbol from the brink of extinction.
China is pouring tens of millions of dollars into the campaign in hopes of speeding up the birth rate of giant pandas in captivity so they can one day release them into the wild. Research is also under way to clone pandas, using bears and rabbits as surrogate mothers.
But scientists concede their chances of success are slim without more efforts to fight the main cause of the giant panda’s decline: the rapid destruction of its bamboo forest habitat.
Scientists estimate the number of giant pandas in the wild has dropped by half in the past two decades. A survey in April counted fewer than 1,000.
There were 126 pandas in captivity as of November 1999, most in China. Seven were in U.S. zoos.
One reason pandas have failed to adapt is their slow birth rate. In zoos, most refuse to mate. Even in the wild, scientists estimate that females give birth only once every 2 1/3 years.
A laboratory in Beijing is studying cloning as a way to speed up breeding.
Artificial insemination has offered more success in overcoming the panda’s reluctance to procreate. Since the first artificially conceived cub in 1963, 210 have been born in China and 20 overseas.
But only about half have survived to adulthood. Pandas born in captivity have less resistance to disease and mothers sometimes abandon their young.
At the Chengdu Research Base newborns like Shen-Shen and Ao-Ao are taken from their mother at birth.
Too young to open their eyes, the twins are kept in separate incubators and drink milk formula from baby bottles held by researchers.
The careful attention means the average six pandas born there each year now survive, said Li Guanghan, the head of the breeding project. The cubs are kept for research or sent to zoos. Li said he hopes to breed enough pandas to start releasing them into the wild.
But by that time, there may be little forest left.
Giant pandas once roamed much of China and northern Vietnam looking for the bamboo that makes up most of their diet. But a government survey three years ago showed panda habitat had shrunk by 90 percent in some areas since the late 1980s.
Beijing says it will spend $36 million to double protected areas in Sichuan and neighboring Shaanxi and Gansu provinces to 2.5 million acres.
Experts say that’s not enough. China’s 34 existing panda reserves need more rangers to stop illegal loggers and poachers. And nothing has been done to relocate thousands of people still living in those reserves, who continue to clear trees and open up new farmland.
"Until the problem of habitat is solved, there is no way to really talk about saving the panda," said Wang Dajun, a panda researcher at Peking University.
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