The Wolong National Nature Reserve and panda breeding center is the only place in the world where the rare animals can be seen in such large numbers. But Chinese officials and zoo officials overseas had worried about the fate of the center's 86 pandas since Monday's devastating earthquake rattled nearby areas in central Sichuan province.
Late Tuesday, officials at Wolong used a satellite phone to contact the State Forestry Administration and report that the pandas were safe, the official Xinhua News Agency said. It said all panda cubs had been taken to safety.
Thirty-one British tourists panda-watching in Wolong and initially reported missing were safe and in the provincial capital of Chengdu Tuesday night, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
No mention was made of a group of 12 Americans in the area on a tour sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund. Kerry Zobor, U.S.-based spokeswoman for the WWF, said they have not been able to contact the WWF members.
Pandas are a national symbol for China. They are loaned to other countries as friendship offerings in what has become known as "panda politics." They are so rare and so slow to breed that any large-scale loss could have been critical to the population.
More than 60 pandas at another breeding center in Chengdu are safe, and the center reopened to tourists Tuesday morning, Xinhua said. Another eight pandas at a preserve in Ya'an, about an hour's drive west of Chengdu, were reported safe as well.
But the Wolong center is deep in the hills north of Chengdu along a winding, two-lane road that reports say was wiped out in places by the quake. Earlier phone and e-mail contact had failed.
Pandas are among the world's rarest animals. Both the Wolong and Chengdu centers are part of efforts to breed giant pandas in hopes of increasing the species' chances of survival. About 1,600 pandas live in the wild in China's mountainous west and another 180 live in captivity.
The Wolong center offers visitors the rare chance to play with young pandas, while wearing sterile gloves, booties and gowns for the pandas' safety.
It is also difficult to reach, even in the best of times. Rescue workers only reached nearby areas by foot Tuesday, a day after the quake struck.
"We are terribly concerned and we are hoping the report is true," said Suzanne Braden, director of U.S.-based Pandas International, which supports Wolong with medical equipment and supplies. "I am waiting for confirmation that someone has actually made it to Wolong."
Braden said she feared that medical supplies and other equipment needed for newborn cubs were lost in the quake and that enclosures in the reserve might have been damaged. "We certainly don't want captive pandas to get out into the wild," she said.