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China protects pandas from possible H1N1 pandemic

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giant pandaCats can get the H1N1 virus. So can dogs, ferrets and (obviously) pigs. But what about endangered species like giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)?

China isn’t waiting around for an answer. Last week, the panda section of the Shaanxi Wild Animal Rescue and Research Center was closed to visitors and to most volunteers after a surge in human H1N1 cases in the area. Only the center’s five full-time panda caregivers and two veterinarians are now allowed to enter the pandas’ living quarters. "For safety considerations, they have to wear masks and gloves before entering the panda houses," deputy security chief Jin Xuelin told the Xinhua News Agency. Even these approved staffers are being tested for flu symptoms twice a day to further protect the animals.

Unlike China’s other three panda centers, Shaanxi is also home to 21 pandas belonging to the recently recognized Qinling panda subspecies (A.  melanoleuca qinlingensis). The pandas have "smaller skeletons, larger cheek teeth and traces of brown instead of the typical black and white [markings] for other pandas," according to Xinhua. There are only about 300 Qinling pandas in the world, compared with around 1,300 of the more common giant pandas.

Officials say Shaanxi could reopen to visitors in the spring, once flu season is over. Until then, watch out for ferrets.

Image: Panda cub, via Wikipedia

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