Reporting from Beijing — They sent army doctors, police and hand-selected veterinarians to rescue her, but after three hours at a hospital, nothing could save Quan Quan, the beloved giant panda at the Jinan Zoo in Shandong province.
On Tuesday, six days after Quan Quan's death, officials said that poisonous gas had killed the 21-year-old panda, dubbed a "heroic mother" by state media for giving birth to seven cubs over the years.
An autopsy revealed that Quan Quan, who was about 70 in panda years, died after inhaling carbon monoxide and chlorine from a former air raid shelter that was being disinfected. The fumes, the medical report said, caused her lungs to collapse.
Early news media reports said the panda had been placed in the contaminated shelter at the zoo to cool down during the midday heat. But Liu Jungang, deputy Communist Party secretary of the Jinan Zoo, said Tuesday that the disinfectant had come through shared ventilation pipes from the nearby shelter. Liu did not explain how the gas got into the ventilation system.
The death of one of China's national treasures, a member of an endangered species, probably will increase pressure to improve care for the animals, experts said.
Most of the world's pandas live in China, the animals' native home. But industrialization has meant the destruction of much of their natural habitat. In response, China has opened reserves and breeding facilities. China has about 250 pandas in captivity, compared with 1,000 thought to still live in the wild.
Quan Quan lived at the Wolong panda breeding center in Sichuan, the world's biggest, which is home to 150 pandas. Only half of the pandas stay at the center; the rest are given as diplomatic gifts to other countries or lent to zoos, as Quan Quan was to the Jinan Zoo.
Animal welfare advocates say Quan Quan's death underscores the dearth of laws regulating how animals in captivity should be treated. Pandas have died in Chinese zoos and breeding centers facilities because of malnutrition, stress, inappropriate breeding and poor veterinary treatment, said Kati Loeffler, veterinary advisor for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
"These pandas are being bred for a life in captivity," Loeffler said. "Why are they being bred? Just so they can circulate through zoos and live next to old air raid shelters?"
Quan Quan is the second panda to die at the zoon in Jinan, about 200 miles south of Beijing. In 2008, Tao Tao, also on loan to the facility, died of brain disease at the age of 36. Pandas' usual life expectancy is 30 to 40 years.
Pandas draw much attention in overseas venues such as the San Diego Zoo, and they are treated as celebrities in China, a symbol of the nation's culture.
A group of mourners formed at Jinan Zoo two days after Quan Quan's death, according to a report by the Shandong Business Daily.
Holding newspapers with an obituary for the panda, adults and children stood outside Quan Quan's last home and paid tribute to the animal they had visited so often.
"Quan Quan went on a long trip," said a father comforting his son. "Let's come see her again in two years."
Kuo is with The Times' Beijing Bureau. Tommy Yang in the bureau contributed to this report.