Researchers work to return pandas to wild

By Huang Zhiling (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-02-21 06:48
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 Researchers work to return pandas to wild

Two disguised employees with Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan put giant panda cub Cao Gen into a basket on Sunday morning before transferring him to a new habitat as part of a program to train the bears to fend for themselves. They dressed up as giant pandas to minimize the impact of human intervention. PHOTO BY HENG YI / FOR CHINA DAILY


CHENGDU - Visitors in the mountainous Wolong Nature Reserve in Southwest China's Sichuan province were so amused to see people carrying a panda cub in a basket on Sunday morning that they couldn't stop taking pictures.

What they didn't know was that the animal would soon be taken to a new habitat high above sea level. Nor did they recognize that the arduous journey the panda would make for an hour and a half along a snow-covered mountainous path would form part of a program intended to release pandas into the wild, said Li Desheng, deputy chief of the reserve's administrative bureau.

In July 2003, Wolong began a project mean to train captive pandas to live on their own. Its first "graduate", Xiang Xiang, was released to the wild in April 2006, after undergoing three years of training. In February 2007, the five-year-old male panda was found dead, bringing an end to the first phase of the reserve's program.

Researchers believe Xiang Xiang fell from a high place after competing with other members of his species for territory and food.

The case revealed the hostility that wild panda communities often show to male outsiders, Li said.

Despite the failure, researchers refused to be discouraged. They saw no point in continuing their studies of panda breeding if the animals weren't to be released eventually into the wild.

In June 2010, the Wolong Nature Reserve resumed the project, planning to train four pandas in three years' time and release one or two of them from captivity.

A month later, the reserve brought four female pandas to its field-training base situated 1,800 meters above sea level. On Aug 3, Cao Cao, an 8-year-old panda, gave birth to a male cub, Cao Gen. Researchers, keen to let Cao Cao be raised with as little human interference as possible, decided to observe the mother-and-son pair from a distance using special equipment.

If they had to get closer, they would don panda costumes, Li said.

Cao Gen, who weighed 205 grams at birth, is now up to 11.6 kilograms.

His primary source of food is milk from his mother. Still, Cao Gen likes to stay in trees for about 18 hours every day.

Unlike captive pandas, Cao Gen isn't dependant on human beings. Rather than welcome the researchers who would dress like pandas to give him monthly physical examinations, he would snarl and bite their fingers, according to Huang Yan, deputy chief engineer in the reserve.

Recognizing Cao Gen had retained many of his wild instincts, the reserve moved him and his mother on Sunday to its field training area, perched about 2,200 meters above sea level among the mountains.

The area contains about 40,000 square meters surrounded by steel wires standing 2 meters in height, making it about 16 times the size of the field training base nearly 400 meters below, Li said.

To monitor the two pandas in their new habitat, workers installed 55 surveillance cameras. If their assistance is needed, the keepers will don panda costumes rather than risk letting the animals get used to contact with human beings.

For pandas, the best time to learn to live in the wild is between the ages of six months and 18 months, said Hu Jinchu, an 82-year-old panda expert.

Because the chief predators of pandas in Wolong are leopards, Hu, a leading panda researcher, advised keepers there to dress and roar like a leopard. Doing so, he said, will help Cao Gen prepare for life in the wild.

Hu's suggestion was accepted by Huang at a meeting in Wolong on Saturday.

Giant pandas are among the most endangered species in the world. About 1,600 of them live in the wild.

Li Xuemei contributed to this story.

China Daily

              (China Daily 02/21/2011 page7)