Rescue center questioned after viral outbreak killed two rare bears

Source:Global Times Published: 2015-1-20 19:53:01

A keeper feeds pandas named Qin Chuan and Le Le at the Shaanxi Wild Animal Rescue and Research Center in Louguan, Shaanxi Province, on September 24, 2010. Photo: IC

A sign reading "Park is closed, No visitors allowed" was erected on the road leading to a wildlife protection center in Louguan township in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province.

The Shaanxi Wild Animal Conservation Research Center was closed to tourists following an outbreak of canine distemper virus (CDV) in late December, which killed two of its pandas and left a third one seriously ill, reported.

Nearly 30 top Chinese medical experts went to treat the sick pandas, including two that were infected with CDV, and four others that were suspected of being infected.

The two female pandas, Cheng Cheng and Da Bao, were both 8 years old when they died. They were taken to the center after they injured themselves in the wild when they were just 1 year old.

Prior to the outbreak, the center was home to 25 pandas, 17 of which were conceived through artificial insemination. After the outbreak, 18 healthy pandas were transferred to other nature reserves in the province, according to the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post.

While experts are trying to figure out how the infectious disease spread, media outlets have speculated about whether the pandas were raised and protected properly in the center, and whether the center should have been open to public at all. 

According to news portal, the center is located in a scenic area, close to bustling residential compounds and hotels, and that the nearby villagers keep lots of cats and dogs which could have posed health risks to the giant pandas. 

In addition to its primary function as a scientific research institute, which is to rescue and breed nationally protected wild animals, the center started to put some pandas on display and sell tickets to the public several years ago, which has led to many wondering whether the center failed to separate pandas that were used for research and those that came into contact with tourists and whether or not this could have ramped up the risk of diseases being passed to the animals. 

Deadly virus 

The deadly and contagious CDV has a 90 percent fatality rate for pandas, an expert with the China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Pandas told the Oriental Morning Post.

CDV is a viral disease that affects the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts, as well as the spinal cord and the brain. Infected animals usually have symptoms including high fever, eye inflammation, coughing, vomiting, diarrhea and lethargy, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

"Once the infected animals develop neurological symptoms, less than 5 percent survive," Jin Yipeng, a professor with the college of veterinary medicine at the China Agricultural University, was quoted as saying by the Oriental Morning Post. He said that CDV outbreaks occur almost every year in China among animals such as dogs, but this was the most serious breakout among pandas on record. There is no effective treatment for CDV at this stage.

Vaccines can prevent domestic animals from being infected with the virus, but prevention measures to protect pandas are still absent in China, Jin said.

According to the third national giant panda survey in 2004, there were less than 1,600 wild pandas nationwide, 273 of which lived in Shaanxi.

Three research centers affiliated with the China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Pandas in Sichuan Province have reinforced their disease prevention measures after the outbreak, including stricter disinfection procedures and suspension of human contact with pandas. 

A bad neighborhood for pandas

Two workers in protective clothing and masks were disinfecting a residential compound in Louguan township on January, two days after Da Bao died, when reporters visited the center.

The compound and several villages were located north of the center, which is surrounded by a 3-meter-high wall. On the south side of the center there is a big hotel with hot springs, on its east side is a scenic spot and on its west side farmland. 

There are two holes in the center's wall, with one hole next to a ditch filled with garbage and restaurant waste.

CDV is commonly spread through contact with infected body fluids or contaminated food and water, Xinhua said. Jin said that the source of the outbreak may be traced to pets and stray animals, though it has not confirmed yet.

Each panda had its own room in the center and the animals only shared a playground, according to Han Xueli, publicity director at the center.

Yong Yange, a panda expert in Shaanxi, said that the center was built on the north side of Qinling mountain, while pandas' main active areas are to the south of the mountain, and that they could not cope with the dry weather in the north. He said the center was built too close to residential areas.

Displaying for profit 

There is a ticket window outside the center, though it has been closed to public since the outbreak.

Residents in nearby villages called the center a "zoo," as it was open to public and had over 20 kinds of rare animals on display, such as takins and snub-nosed monkeys.

The center charged 30 yuan for a ticket in peak season and 20 yuan in off-season, an employee at the center told

According to the Forest Department of Shaanxi Province, the center, established in 1987, was an institute dedicated to the rescue and protection of wild animals, growing the numbers of endangered animals through artificial insemination and returning animals to the wild.

When asked whether it's proper for such a research institute to be open to the public, Chu Longfei, with the wildlife protection department at the Forest Department of Shaanxi Province, told that the center held a public hearing before it decided to sell tickets 10 years ago. He added that selling tickets helped to pay the salaries of the center's employees.

But the pandas that were put on public display and those used for research should be strictly separated, said Yong.

"Some elderly pandas could be put into captive breeding programs for tourism," Yong said, adding that reducing contact between pandas and human beings could prevent viruses from being transmitted.

Pandas from the center will be resettled in a new panda-breeding base to the south of Qinling Mountain, an area distant from villages. The first phase of the new base's construction has been completed, according to Chu.

The State Forestry Administration released an urgent notice on January 9, banning tourists from making close contact with endangered wild animals across China.

The administration will also investigate the health conditions of pandas in captive breeding programs and carry out epidemic inspections on all endangered wildlife breeding sites.

Global Times

Newspaper headline: Panda plague

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