Hundreds of giant pandas in western China could die from starvation because the bamboo plants they eat have begun to flower and die back, it was revealed Monday.
Wardens at the Baishuijiang State nature reserve in the north western province of Gansu are to monitor the 102 pandas in the reserve for signs of hunger after the arrow bamboo in the region began a potentially devastating cyclical dying-back phase. This occurs about once every 60 years.
With bamboo die-back observed to some degree in all the regions where the endangered animals still live, conservationists gave warning that China's entire wild population could be at risk and appealed to local people not to drive off starving pandas if they entered villages looking for food.
Compelled to eat half their own body weight in bamboo each day to survive, pandas derive most of their nutrition from the shoots. But they refuse to eat it when bamboo forms flowers. The bamboo blooms then produces seeds before dying off, and it takes 10 years for a new crop to mature.
A mass flowering of bamboo tends to occur at the same time in certain regions, with the cycle running at different times in other regions. But according to the official Xinhua news agency, some bamboo has also started blooming in Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces, home to the rest of China's estimated 1,590 wild pandas. Bamboo that is in bloom now covers more than 7,000 hectares of the 220,000 hectare Baishuijiang State reserve. Twenty-two pandas living in the reserve's Bikou and Rangshuihe areas are already threatened with starvation.
Older, less healthy animals will be helped first, and, if necessary, moved to areas that still have bamboo they can eat, the reserve's director, Zhang Kerong, told Xinhua.
The starvation fears come three months after Chinese forestry officials announced a 40 percent increase in the panda's wild population from 1,114 to 1,596. It followed a desperate conservation effort.
As well as by their limited diet and desperately slow rate of reproduction, pandas have been threatened by the loss of their natural habitat to intensive farming and rapid industrialization.