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November 25, 2009

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Pandas out of bounds amid flu outbreaks

A GIANT panda research center in northwest China's Shaanxi Province has closed the animals' living and entertainment areas to visitors in order to protect the endangered species from the risk of swine flu infection.

Shaanxi Wild Animal Rescue and Research Center, one of China's four giant panda bases, stopped recruiting volunteers and made a 2,000-square-meter area off-limits to visitors last week after heavy snowfall brought sudden temperature drops and a rise in the number of H1N1 flu patients, said Wang Gang, a zoo worker at the center.

The center, in Zhouzhi County at the foot of the Qinling Mountain, is home to 21 giant pandas, including three cubs born this year, and other species including golden monkeys, takins and crested ibis.

Only five panda carers and two vets were allowed to enter the living quarters, according to Jin Xuelin, the center's deputy chief.

The zoo workers' temperatures are taken twice a day, and those with flu symptoms are banned from approaching the animals.

"It's still not certain whether pandas are susceptible to H1N1 flu, but we need to be careful," he said.

Shaanxi Province reported its first H1N1 flu death on November 20 and at least 13 were critically ill with the epidemic as of Monday, the provincial health department said.

Jin said the center would open to tourists again after the flu season ... "hopefully in spring."

In the interim, enthusiasts can catch a glimpse of the pandas on the center's Website -- -- which has photos and video clips.

A visit to the center, founded in 1987, costs 35 yuan (US$5.12).

All the pandas at the center are unique to the Qinling Mountain Range and belong to a new, and more endangered, sub-species of pandas.


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