CHENGDU: A dog has been man's best friend since the dawn of civilization. Soon it could become the savior of giant pandas, too.
This undated photo shows Xiang Xiang, the first giant panda released into the wild in April 2006. It was found dead in Februry this year. [China Daily]
Zoologists and other experts thought rearing pandas in captivity was the toughest job. But they were to realize later that releasing a captive-bred panda into the wild was a tougher job. The reason: these pandas were vulnerable when left to fend for themselves in the wild.
This became all the more real when the first artificially bred panda released into the wild was found dead, apparently killed by other animals.
So how do you teach them to defend themselves? A lesson on the survival of the fittest - and that's where man's best friend comes in.
The China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province has plans to introduce a specially trained police dog to live with four pandas, says Zhang Hemin, chief of the reserve's administrative bureau.
Hopefully, the pandas will observe the dog and learn how to defend themselves and increase their chances of survival in the wild.
The endangered animals will get a lesson or two in competition for food, too, when some other herbivores are introduced in their habitat.
The center has already submitted a report on phase II of reintroducing pandas into the wild to the State Forestry Administration, Zhang says, and it's likely to be approved in January or February.
Wolong released the first captive-bred panda, 4-year-old Xiang Xiang (Auspicious), in the wild on April 28, 2006, after training him for nearly three years. But he was found dead on February 19, 2007.
A post mortem showed Xiang Xiang had broken his ribs and suffered internal damage, says the center's deputy chief, Li Desheng.
Experts say it could have fallen from a high place after getting into a fight over food or territory with another panda.
Having been bred at the center, Xiang Xiang didn't know how to fight.
And Xiang Xiang was weaker than his wild counterparts, says center's senior vet Tang Chunxiang.
"That's why we have to give captive-bred pandas better survival training, especially in combat and defensive skills Although sad, Xiang Xiang's case is an experience, and will help us plan the phase II of the reintroduction better."
But won't learning from a trained dog how to defend themselves alter the natural instincts of the pandas? No one can say for sure, say experts. But it's more likely that they will develop their own instincts by observing the dog.
One of the outcomes of the Xiang Xiang experience is the decision to send female pandas to the wild in phase II. "Xiang Xiang's tragedy indicates it's difficult for a male panda to be accepted by rivals in the wild," says Zhang.
Actually, there are three possibilities in phase II, Zhang says. Either a female from among the four pandas living with the dog will be sent, or a pair of male and a female could be released, or all the four pandas could be reintroduced so that they could form a group of their own in the wild.
"Three serious problems dogged panda breeding: finding the right partners, pregnancy and survival of the cubs," Zhang says. Wolong solved them in the 1990s, and the survival rate today is more than 90 per cent. The center now has 128 captive-bred pandas, or about 60 per cent of the total in captivity across the world.
"But returning these pandas to nature is the ultimate goal of the breeding programs," he says. And it seems a dog can help it succeed.
Agencies contributed to the story