PEKING -- More than 60 giant pandas have starved to death in China in the last three years because the only food the finicky animals eat -- arrow bamboo -- is disappearing, the official Xinhua News Agency said Thursday.
The ranks of the shy, bushy-tailed creatures have been decimated since the summer of 1983 when the arrow bamboo began to flower and then wither, a process that occurs every few decades.
Despite efforts to diversify the pandas' exclusive diet of arrow bamboo, 44 have been found dead from starvation and another 18 have died while receiving medical treatment since 1983, Dong Zhiyong, deputy minister of forestry and head of the national rescue group for giant pandas, told Xinhua.
Three of the pandas died from 'hunger and illness' in the first three months of this year, he was quoted as saying.
He said another 43 starving pandas have been rescued, including four hungry animals found between January and March in their mountainous homeland in southwest China.
Many Westerners associate the word 'panda' with the giant pandas - the large, black-and-white, bearlike mammals that live in China and Tibet and eat bamboo. Lesser pandas are reddish, raccoonlike mammals of the Himalayan region, with a long, ringed tail.
Less than 1,000 of the giant pandas are believed left in a 30,000-square-mile habitat in the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu, Dong said.
Dong said the survival crisis was exacerbated by the deaths of 138 pandas during the mid-1970s, when no rescue measures were taken to help the starving animals. He said failure to mount a rescue effort then was a 'real disaster.'
Current rescue efforts will last between 12 and 15 years because it will take at least a decade before the new bamboo shoots grow large enough to become panda food, he said.
The state has allocated $3.75 million for the rescue operation - more than $3,125 per panda -- in addition to nearly $3.7 million from donations, he said.
In addition to improving the varieties of bamboo to make them flower at different times, officials will release captured pandas back to the wild, said Dong.
A total of 14 pandas have already been returned to their natural habitat and another 90 are living on seven panda farms in Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces and in various zoos.