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.