KARAOKE, potato chips and bottled water. Is it possible that the survival of the world's favourite wild animal, the giant panda, will hang on these three formidable items of modern humankind? Strapped for funding as the wind from Beijing breathes its message of self-reliance, even the conservationists of the remote Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan province are having to look to their own devices. Their task: to protect some 80 to 100 wild giantpandas, one tenth of those still holding out in the face of extinction, last representatives of an unrepeatable evolutionary act which is being destroyed in the silent forest. With precious little to make money with, apart from awesome mountain scenery, farmland, and mineral-rich crystal water cascading from the Himalayas, the communist party politicians who control Wolong's purse strings are building a 64-room hotel and talkingabout food processing and water bottling plants in a bid to make ends meet. The irony is that it is this kind of activity that's been squeezing the panda out of existence in the first place. 'I detest the idea, it's so short-sighted. When will they ever learn?' says an equally rare breed, a Chinese with a deep knowledge of conservation issues whose position could also be endangered if he were to be named. The world's foremost physiological contradiction, a loveable black-and-white carnivore which has chosen through the millennia of evolution to become a particularly choosy vegetarian, was around soon after the demise of the dinosaurs. It has outlived many large mammals, such as the mammoth, that vanished during the climatic upheavals of the Pleistocene age. For three million years it did fine, roaming the plains of China as far south as Guangdong, as far east as Shanghai, and north almost to Beijing, until the descendants of Peking Man started to make their insatiable demands on the landscape in their drive to become the world's largest population. Relentlessly forced into retreat, the giant panda took refuge in the mountain forests of the west. But as the panda moved, so did man. The population of Sichuan province has tripled this century to reach 140 million. Panda numbers dwindled from thousands to hundreds, their range fragmented by the hungry destruction of the forests that provide essential cover for the bamboo on which they learned to thrive. Since the communist revolution, 30 per cent of Sichuan's primaryforest has been felled. Hounded and poached for its skin, the panda is now confined in small clusters in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces. One such island is the 2,000 square kilometres of Wolong reserve, in rugged hills 140 kilometres north-west of Chengdu. It was not until 1978 that any serious study of the animal was started. Only then did China wake up to what conservationists had been telling it for years: that its National Treasure was facing extinction. 'We knew so little about the panda's habits,'' says field worker, Tian Zhexiang, who worked in the first research camp on a ridge 500 metres above the fast flowing Pitiao River which snakes through Wolong. 'We spent the first three months looking in the wrong place. We didn't even know that the panda goesupland in summer and comes down in winter.' Two years later, following an agreement hammered out between the Chinese forestry authorities and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF, now the World Wide Fund for Nature) in an atmosphere of distrust of foreigners, arrogance and bureaucratic ignorance, a highly experienced American field biologist, Dr George Schaller, was allowed access to Wolong and other reserves. He spent four years systematically studying panda movements through the use of radio collars and analysing droppings found beneath umbrella and arrow bamboo, the panda's staple diet. In 1985, Dr Schaller published a book, The Giant Pandas of Wolong, in collaboration with Chinese scientists, which told the world just about all there was to know about the panda in the wild. Much of what the animal eats was found to be useless bulk. It can assimilate only about 17 per cent of the food value of the bamboo. Even the goose, renowned for the rate of passage of its food, has a food conversion efficiency of 30 per cent, and a deer subsisting on green grass can achieve up to 80 per cent. By contrast carnivores, such as the cat, have an efficiency of 90 per cent. Because of this, the panda has to spend many hours a day stuffing itself with bamboo. Even so, the calorific intake is so small that it barely exceeds its expenditures of chewing, digesting and moving to the next eating frenzy. Lengthy naps to conserve thelittle energy it gets from its food are required. There is no possibility of putting on fat, like many bears do, in order to hibernate. The panda has no choice but to live out the harsh winters eating for 14 hours a day. Now, 13 years after the start of the WWF project, the giant panda is still in grave danger but field work has stopped. And still no one really knows how many pandas there are in Wolong, and whether the population is increasing or declining. In November, a three-month United Nations-backed census survey will be conducted which could give the answer. 'The book is closed apart from the survey,' says Yuan Shijun, a programme officer with the Sichuan Forestry Department. 'It's more important to take immediate action to protect the habitat. The situation is critical.' The road to Wolong from Chengdu travels first along the banks of the mighty Min River whose white flecked torrents transport thousands of tree trunks to the lowlands. Although all logging has been banned within Wolong reserve, trucks groaning with the weight of timber scalped from hillsides to the north and west and from neighbouring Tibet, pass through at the rate of 50 day. Bordering the road, a ribbon of farmland edges up the steep hillside which once grew tall spruces 150 years old or more. This is the activity killing the panda. Once free to roam across rivers to search for new food areas and satisfy the instinctive impulse of all creatures to seek out new genetic stock, the shy panda demonstrates a complete aversion to human activity. As a consequence, inbreeding because of a diminishing gene pool is further limiting its chances of survival. Whether it be with fires or engine noise, the ribbon development by the 4,285 indigenous people of the reserve, who eke out a meagre living raising pigs and growing corn, turnips and potatoes, acts as a barrier restricting the pandas' movements. There is a constant conflict between the two interests and forestry department scientists are not slow to express their frustration at the continued presence of the farmers. 'The farmers have been a headache for years. But it would cost Rmb20,000 (HK$22,100) per person to move them. We don't have the money,' says deputy director Zhou Shoude. 'As it is, Wolong survives on a paltry Rmb4 million (HK$4.42million) a year, none of it from abroad. Mainland Chinese are paying that sort of money buying flats in HongKong, aren't they?' Since 1983, 150 people have left to join relatives elsewhere, but because most of the farmers belong to non-Han minority races of Tibetan origin (the area was part of Tibet until the communist take-over) and are not subject to China's birth control policy,the number of residents is actually on the rise. The observation that a million people are being moved to make way for the Three Gorges dam project on the Yangtze river is usually greeted with an embarrassed giggle - that is an infrastructure investment, the panda is not. In 1990, the Chinese Ministry of Forestry and WWF published an ambitious management plan for the conservation of the panda and its habitat. But it took the State Council two years to approve the plan which has a budget of Rmb300 million (HK$331 million) over the next 10 years. If implemented, 14 new giant panda reserves will be added to the 13 now existing, taking the total area to 10,070 square kilometres. Just as vital will be 17 corridors, one kilometre wide, to connect isolated populations and increase breeding chances. The central government has only pledged Rmb60 million (HK$66.3 million) towards the plan. 'It's like we're running a 100 metre dash with the people who are destroying the habitats,' says Hu Tieqing, Sichuan Forestry Department's chief of conservation. In the absence of teeth that will bite, Hu is reduced to circulating schools and villages withposters, a valiant effort. People in China, do not encounter the same difficulty in breeding as pandas. A controversial captive breeding programme gained pace in the mid-1980s when the bamboo's genetic clock triggered a periodic flowering followed by a die-off and eventual rebirth. This can happen every 15 to 120 years, depending on the species. Ideally, the pandas would have moved to a new area where the bamboo was still flourishing. But this time they could not, because of human encroachment. Many died, and animals that were rescued for treatment had to be kept as it has proved impossible to return a panda to the wild which has been in captivity longer than a couple of weeks. Some say the opportunity was taken to confine more pandas than was necessary. In China, there are 70 captive pandas, most of them beyond breeding age. A further 16 are kept in a smattering of zoos around the world. Outside China, only in Mexico and Japan, which have two cubs each, has there been any successful breeding. The breedingand research centre at Wolong now has 16 pandas. It costs US$500 (HK$3,850) a year to keep a panda (sponsors get their name on a plaque and a clear conscience). This year only two donations have been received - one from the Hong Kong trading company, Jebsens, the other from a group of journalists of which I was one. If the giant panda is an inefficient eater, it is even worse at breeding. The female has an annual reproductive cycle in which it is on heat only once, and then for only two to three days. She has ovaries similar to rudimentary mammals, of which she is one. The male has a minute penis and can suffer from sperm deficiencies. The survival rate of cubs is even more depressing. Pandas are born blind, naked and helpless. Each weighs 100 grammes, one-thousandth of the weight of its mother. It is as if a woman were to give birth to a baby the size of a normal bar of soap. Since breeding research began at Chengdu zoo 15 years ago, there have been 22 births producing 30 cubs. Only 16 survived to six months and just three survived to breeding age. On 19 September, two cubs were born, one immediately abandoned, as is usual with panda twins. Seven weeks later, the abandoned cub lies twitching in an incubator next to the bed of a research worker keeping a 24-hour vigil. But the fact remains that a panda in captivity ceases to be a panda and becomes flesh and bones in an endearing black-and-white fur uniform, hopelessly ill-equipped for life in the wild. It is keenly sought by zoos to boost attendance figures, a feat only the celebrity panda can achieve. 'The central government has declared Wolong the most important reserve,' says Bai Chengyin, deputy director of Sichuan Forestry department in charge of conservation, 'but there are scientists there who aren't able to deal with people. We need people who can manage.' To seek to preserve the wilderness runs contrary to the Confucian ethic which proclaims that man is superior to nature (and, by extension, that the panda ought to be grateful to have a roof over its head). This presents the Chinese authorities with a thorny problem: their National Treasure has become the international symbol of wildlife conservation, and Beijing would suffer major loss of face should it have to admit to the world that it had failed. While it stubbornly holds out in the hope that overseas funding will make up for its negligence, the problem is not going away. In 1985 George Schaller wrote: 'An understanding of the evolutionary forces that shaped the animal, the vicissitudes which buffeted it over the millennia, the behavioural traits that enabled it to survive in cold rugged mountains in spite of a diet low in nutrients, all foster admiration for the panda beyond its unique physical appeal. By tying its existence to bamboo, the panda has excluded other options. But it is nonetheless a survivor, it was present . . . before man became man.' Earlier this year George Schaller published another book, The Last Panda, in which he tells the story of his researches without the constraints of co-authorship or the back-drop of China's bureaucratic secrecy. 'I can only view with irony,' he writes, 'thefact that never has the panda's destruction been as rapid as during the years we studied it . . . The ultimate responsibility for saving the panda in its natural home rests with China: it alone can implement the measures needed for the animal's protection.The rest of the world must, however, offer guidance, funds, and moral support . . . But if we fail to make the correct choices now, the last pandas will disappear . . . an indictment of civilisation as a destroyer.' However, there are many hopeful signs: the bamboo that died off 10 years ago is now showing shoots one metre high; 3,000 hectares of trees have been planted in the past three years; education is thought to have largely eliminated poaching although Rmb150,000 (HK$165,000) for a pelt is a grand prize for a farmer who earns Rmb500 (HK$552) a year; and although more pandas than perhaps necessary are held in captivity, breeding research can continue to make steps (the Wolong scientists are particularly proud of a cub that last year survived 160 days of hand rearing). For their part, Chinese scientists know that the true long-term direction, if the panda is to survive, is not behind bars, it is habitat protection. But it is the politicians who make the decisions. The challenge is to make them come up with the money. Otherwise, it will be up to karaoke, potato chips and Panda Brand water, after all. Last week the major discussion, although not among the scientists, was whether to have the bar inside the hotel or to house it separately. 'We want to develop ourselves as we are told to do,' admits Dr Tang Chunxiang, chief vet at Wolong, 'the trouble is the Chinese people lack any idea of environmental protection.' Everyone at Wolong is aware of the tragedy of Jiuzaigou, a series of outstandingly beautiful waterfalls and lakes elsewhere in Sichuan province, which bus loads of local tourists from Chengdu have reduced to the noisy dustbin of public domain.