Image: Giant pandas
Liu Jin  /  AFP - Getty Images
Two pandas have their breakfasts at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong Nature Reserve in this 2006 file photo.
updated 5/18/2008 8:51:46 PM ET 2008-05-19T00:51:46

Three giant pandas are missing from the world's most famous panda reserve after China's devastating earthquake and five staff members were killed, an official told state media Sunday.

All the pandas at the Wolong Nature Reserve were first reported safe Tuesday, but an official with the State Forestry Administration now says three are missing, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.

The reserve's other 60 giant pandas are safe, forestry spokesman Cao Qingyao told Xinhua.

Wolong is the only place in the world where pandas, among the world's rarest animals, can be seen in such large numbers.

The reserve is 18 miles from the epicenter of the May 12 earthquake that has killed more than 32,000 people. The government has said it expects the final death toll will surpass 50,000.

"We're so concerned about the entire panda community," said Suzanne Braden, director of U.S.-based Pandas International, which supports Wolong with medical equipment and supplies.

"To lose anybody, whether staff, local people living around the reserve, or pandas, is devastating," she said. "These people give their lives to those pandas."

As for the missing animals, Braden said, "we can hope for the best."

Pandas may be fearful after quake
She said the staff may be able to search for the pandas when things become more calm, or the pandas may return to the reserve on their own because it has served as their food source. But Braden also said that the pandas may be tense and fearful after the quake.

The temblor also destroyed or severely damaged all 32 of the reserve's panda houses, Cao said.

Braden said if the pandas' or enclosures are destroyed there may be nothing to contain them, and more pandas could then go missing "unless they've been able to make some temporary adjustments."

Late Tuesday, officials at Wolong used a satellite phone to contact the forestry administration and report that the pandas were safe, Xinhua reported.

It was not clear why the initial report differed from Sunday's report. Phone calls to the state forestry administration and to the forestry bureau in Sichuan province rang unanswered Sunday night. Fixed phone lines to the reserve remained down. Officials have been able to call the reserve only by satellite phone.

"The first batch of bamboo, apples, and veterinary medicine for the pandas, as well as food and the tents urgently needed by the staff, arrived at the Wolong Reserve on Saturday night," Cao told Xinhua.

Panda is national symbol of China
The panda is a national symbol of China, with about 1,590 living in the wild in China, mostly in Sichuan and the western province of Shaanxi. Another 180 have been bred in captivity.

More than 60 pandas at another breeding center in Chengdu were reported safe after the quake, 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.

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.

Both the Wolong and Chengdu centers are part of efforts to breed giant pandas in hopes of increasing the species' chances of survival.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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