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Pandas walk on the wild side

By Tan Weiyun (Shanghai Daily)

08:23, September 25, 2012

Panda experts check the wild environment at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Sichuan Province. (Shanghai Daily)

SINCE 1953 when the first living giant panda was discovered and rescued in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China has embarked on a difficult road to preserve this endangered roly-poly icon.

The Chengdu Panda Base established in 1987 has expanded from six giant pandas, all rescued from the wild, to 111 today - all bred in captivity. The total number of captive-bred giant pandas in China is 328, according to experts from the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. The number in the wild is not known, though estimates range from 1,600 to 2,000 or more.

None has been successfully reintroduced to the wild. Ten attempts in the early 1980s failed.

But one "wilded" giant panda named Taotao is expected to be released into the wild soon, according to an announcement early this month from the Sichuan Provincial Forestry Bureau. He is to be released into the Liziping Nature Reserve in Simian County, Sichuan Province. A date has not been set yet.

Taotao, 26 months old, was born in a "training field" for wilding in Sichuan's Wolong Nature Reserve. He is now in a second enclosure that simulates the wild.

Six other young captive-bred pandas are in the first stages of training in a "semi-wild" preserve. They are not ready yet to go it alone. They are considered strong enough to fend for themselves and young enough to learn and adapt.

"To return the pandas safely to the wild is our ultimate goal," says Dr Zhang Zhihe, director of the Chengdu Panda Base, who recently visited Shanghai to launch a global search for three international panda ambassadors or Pambassadors.

"Our hope is to make sure they can survive the wild," he says.

Since his birth more than two years ago, Taotao has never seen a "human being," as all staff in the nature reserve area always wear panda costumes. He is with his mother. There is no more human intervention, such as feeding or regular surveillance, but if the panda is seriously ill, researchers will intervene.

Today Taotao is not only able to move about, climb trees and look for food, but he also has developed a sense of alertness and ability to avoid enemies, primarily human poachers. Because of its size, the panda has few natural enemies, but it must watch out for takin, very large goat-antelopes that can injure by kicking.

In other wild areas at higher elevations, predators include wolves, Asian golden cats, jackals and yellow-throated martens - leopards and martens can seize baby pandas. But pandas are big, with strong jaws and teeth and can fight back.

Pandas, which live on low-nutrient bamboo, have low metabolism and are not very active. They are basically docile and live companionably with other animals, such as goats, pheasants and small creatures.

"To return them safely to the wild is a slow and long process. It's really hard to say how long it will take. It could be 10 years; it could be 50 years or longer," director Zhang says.

To be successfully released, not only must a wilded panda fend for itself, integrate into the wild and coexist with other wild animal groups, but it must also breed.

"Most important is that it be able to reproduce in the wild," Zhang says.

Since the early 1980s, China has made around 10 attempts to return giant pandas to the wild, but all failed.

Giant panda Beibei was released into the wild in 1984 but found its way back to and died two months later.

Sanshan lost 25kg during four months in the wild and found its way back to the base at last in 1991. Xiangxiang was found dead after a fight with wild pandas in 2006.

The biggest problem was lack of survival skills and dependence on regular feeding.

"To protect giant pandas does not mean keeping them in an artificial environment in the care of human beings," Zhang says. "Real protection means they can live free and be strong in the wild world."

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