BEIJING (Reuters) - China's devastating earthquake in May dealt a major blow to panda conservation but a leading expert said on Tuesday their numbers were still increasing.
"We don't know how many pandas died in the wild but the habitat loss is very bad," said Wei Fuwen from the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Only around 1,590 giant pandas still live in the wild, all in China, and about 1,400 were in the part of the southwestern province of Sichuan that was rocked by the May 12 earthquake.
The pandas in one major breeding base had to be temporarily evacuated because of post-quake hazards. At least eight percent of the endangered animal's habitat was destroyed in the quake that killed nearly 70,000 people.
Despite the devastation wrought by nature, Wei was still strikingly upbeat about the survival of China's national symbol which is one of the mascots for the Beijing Olympics.
"Has it reached an evolutionary dead-end? I think the answer to that is 'No'," he told reporters visiting Beijing Zoo to admire the eight "Olympic pandas" there.
Reviewing the latest findings on their remote home in a wild corner of China, Wei said: "There are many more pandas in the wild than we thought. I am an optimist about the future of the panda."
He said research showed pandas in the wild had a relatively high reproduction rate, changing the long-held view that it was a major problem for the endangered species.
In fact, the numbers in the wild have actually increased, he said, even if it was only by just over one percent.
The panda has played a symbolic role in breaking down international barriers for China -- and also helped in its bid to land the 2008 Olympics, which open on Friday.
The first pandas ever sent abroad were dispatched by China in 1984 to Los Angeles to mark the Summer Olympics there. Two more were flown to Winter Games host Calgary where a record 1.35 million people went to see them at the Canadian zoo.
At Beijing Zoo, the cuddly black and white pandas do have an extraordinary effect on people, pressing up to six deep against the windows to get a closer look.
Mothers clambered to get a picture of their children with a panda in the background. It really was a scene of "panda-monium" as cameras flashed and people jostled to catch a grandstand view of feeding time.
(Editing by Miles Evans)