Chinese authorities have arrested 203 people for illegal hunting of the endangered giant panda and recovered 146 pelts, representing about one in seven of all pandas alive at the last count, the World Wildlife Fund said.

"These are shocking revelations," William Reilly, president of the fund's U.S. affiliate, said in a statement. "The situation appears to be worsening for the panda," with the march to extinction more advanced than previously believed and hunting the greatest threat.Reilly said it was the first time China had released such detailed statistics.

China's last public estimates of the panda population were made in 1976 about 1,000 animals. Another survey is under way this year, and results have been announced only for the Wolong Nature Preserve 145 animals in 1976, 72 now.

Chinese authorities up to now have said poaching has been controlled, though the possibility of the death penalty for poachers was announced last fall, the fund said.

Forestry Minister Gao Dezhan announced the arrest statistics in February. He reportedly said 150 people still were sought in connection with an investigation into poaching and fur trading in Sichuan Province in western China, where almost all pandas live.

Twenty-six people have been sentenced to prisons terms ranging from a year to life, Dezhan was quoted as saying.

Some pandas are believed caught in snares set for another endangered species, the Asian musk deer, whose oil is valued in traditional Asian medicine.

Panda furs fetch high prices when smuggled to Hong Kong or Japan.

Spokesman Ken Cook said a fund representative, Chris Elliott, saw accounts of Dezhan's speech in a Beijing newspaper on Feb. 27 but had been traveling and unable to confirm the figures with Chinese officials until recently.

The panda is a shy mammal that looks like a black-and-white bear but is believed by many zoologists not all to be closely related to the raccoon. It has been known to be under severe strain as its forest habitat retreated under farming pressure.

The panda eats only certain kinds of bamboo found in the forest.

So little was known about the panda that it was not classified as an endangered species until 1984.

The fund said it was renewing its Ferbuary request to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to deny import permits for short-term exhibitions of pandas in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Detroit and Toledo this year.

David Klinger, spokesman for the service, said applications had been received only from organizations in Detroit and Toledo.

The service, he said, will make no decisions on the permits until it gets information from the Chinese government on whether the exhibitions affect the population in the wild and the captive breeding population in Chinese zoos and whether rental payments from the exhibitions are being used to benefit the species.