Nearly all of China's endangered pandas are in jeopardy after the earthquake last month devastated the remote mountain corner that is their last remaining habitat.

Chinese officials, usually reluctant to reveal the real extent of a crisis, have announced that the last 1,590 pandas living in the wild face a very uncertain future after the earthquake.

Yan Xun, an official at the State Forestry Administration, said: "Their living environment is completely destroyed. Massive landslides and large-scale damage to forests triggered by last month's earthquake are threatening the existence of wild pandas."

The fate of the pandas has been a cause of concern since the May 12 earthquake, which cut off access to large swaths of mountainous areas, including China's largest panda breeding centre in Wolong. One giant panda from the reserve was buried this week after its body was found crushed under the walls of its pen. Another is missing. The other 51 are safe, including 14 cubs that were carried out of the reserve by keepers.

The fate of the 1,400 pandas living in the quake-hit regions - about 88 per cent of the total - remains unknown and a source of growing anxiety. The tremor damaged 1.9 million hectares (4.7 million acres), 83 per cent of China's total panda habitat. The real extent of the damage could be even worse because landslides have blocked roads, preventing officials from assessing some areas.

Mr Yan said: "Caves and tree hollows where giant pandas live may be damaged, water in the habitat is polluted, and some of the bamboo is buried or smashed." He said it was almost certain that the earthquake had claimed more pandas among its victims.

"There must have been wild pandas crushed to death during the quake and in the aftershocks. But we do not have the number."

It was still far too dangerous for researchers to venture into these remote mountain areas to try to assess the ravages on a population that had grown in recent years.
Already boxed into these steep and thickly forested hillsides by the advance of Man, its numbers limited by a slow rate of reproduction and with its food supply threatened by the scarcity of its favourite arrow bamboo, the panda is now facing its most severe crisis in decades.

Of the 55 protected reserves where wild pandas roam, 49 have been affected by the earthquake. Landslides have toppled whole mountainsides, possibly burying many of the animals.

Zhang Zhihe, head of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, the headquarters of China's hugely successful campaign to save the panda through artificial insemination, said that he was also anxious that the devastation of the mountain terrain could deprive the wild panda of access to bamboo. He told The Times: "The pandas now cannot make their way between different mountains because of the landslides and so they may not be able to find food."

It has taken China years to create these reserves, linked by corridors along which the pandas can move with the minimum of encroachment by man. Now these corridors will almost certainly have to be recreated.

Mr Zhang said: "As a wild animal, the panda has the capacity to survive in the short term. But the danger lies in its longer-term survival with the damage to the ecology."