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Thursday, May 6, 1999 Published at 14:56 GMT 15:56 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

China plans panda theme park

Panda numbers in China have continued to fall

They are black and white and loved all over the world, and now a theme park is being planned in China to attract tourists to the natural habitat of the giant panda.

A Chinese newspaper says the authorities in the south-western province of Sichuan are planning to build a panda theme park at a cost of more than $70m.

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The Guangming Daily said the park would be built around the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Base - the world's biggest such facility for the endangered animal.

At present there are only about 1,000 giant pandas left in the wild.

Their numbers have dwindled as human development and poachers encroach on their habitat in bamboo forests in southern and western China.

A panda pelt has been known to fetch up to $200,000 in Japan.

Reproduction worries

Because of the panda's low reproductive capacity, it is very vulnerable.

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The increasing isolation of groups of pandas is also said to be diminishing the gene pool necessary for healthy offspring.

Schemes which have attempted to encourage pandas to mate usually fail because they are generally reluctant to reproduce when in captivity.

Some pandas, born through the use of artificial insemination techniques, have lived relatively short lives but scientists believe cloning, which led to the birth of Dolly the Sheep, the world's first cloned mammal, may hold more promise.

The panda has become a symbol for endangered animals and it is used as the international logo by the the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

More than 100 giant pandas are found in zoos in China and North Korea, with about 15 in zoos in other parts of the world.

It is known in Chinese as Daxiongmao, the "large bear cat". Its scientific name means "black and white cat-footed animal".

It has unusual front paws - one of the wrist bones is enlarged and elongated and is used like a thumb, enabling it to grasp stalks of bamboo.

While bamboo and roots make up most of its diet, the giant panda also feeds on some flowers, fish and occasionally small rodents.

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