Scheme to put pandas back into wild makes progress

Updated: 2011-08-07 22:21


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CHENGDU - Giant panda Tao Tao, the world's first panda who was born in a near-wild environment by his captive-bred mother last August, has shown an awareness of territory and has a capacity to survive in the wild after a year of training, said a panda expert in southwest China's Sichuan Province on Sunday.

Tao Tao was born on August 3, 2010 in a semi-wild panda training base in Hetaoping, affiliated to the Wolong Giant Panda Protection and Research Center in Sichuan, where he and his mother Cao Cao, survived mudslides, snowstorms and torrential rains during the past year.

Tang Chunxiang, an expert with the center, said Tao Tao now is totally independent of synthetic foods offered by man, weighs 25 kilograms at present and has an awareness of territory.

"Tao Tao is physically in better shape than captive-bred cubs," Tang said.

The Wolong center has for some years looked to gradually release captive-bred giant pandas back to the wild.

The first program launched in 2003, however, suffered a setback when Xiang Xiang, a five-year-old male giant panda, was founded dead in the snow in February of 2007.

Xiang Xiang was released into the wild on April 28, 2006 -- the first  captive-bred panda to be returned to the wild, after years of training in a captive environment. He was found to have established a territory of 5 to 10 square km in July, 2006, according to Zhang Hemin, chief of the Wolong center.

"Xiang Xiang died from fighting for territory or over a female mate with other male pandas in 2007," Zhang said.

According to Zhang, for captive-bred pandas, learning how to escape from enemies, get enough food, find a safe place to sleep and establishing an awareness of territory are difficult, but the key to surviving in the wild.

Panda experts have concluded that training cubs immediately after their birth, or even having pregnant pandas give birth to cubs in a near-wild environment with the least help from man, might be a solution.

"We made some changes for the second program," Tang said. "Four well-selected pregnant pandas were sent to a near-wild environment before they gave birth to cubs."

According to the second program launched in July 2010, four captive-bred pregnant giant pandas named Cao Cao, Zi Zhu, Ying Ping and Zhang Ka, aged four to five, were expected to give birth to their cubs and live in the wild until their young are aged three to four.

Mother pandas, previously kept in captivity, are learning to raise their cubs on their own, while the workers of the center observe them through surveillance cameras.

"If they need help, the workers will show up dressed in costumes that make them look like giant pandas, in order to reduce the animals' reliance on humans," Tang said.

Also, the workers will simulate sounds and smells of panda's natural enemies, aimed at improving their vigilance and raising their chances to survive in the wild, he said, adding some small animals, such as squirrels and rabbits, would also be released into the woods.

In February of 2011, 6-month-old Tao Tao and his mother passed an evaluation made by panda experts, and were sent to a 20,000-square-meter training field, much larger than the initial 2,400-square-meter one.

In the larger field, Tao Tao needs to learn more survival skills, such as finding enough food in the wild, escaping from danger and recognizing more species, Tang said.

According to the plan, Tao Tao will receive an examination at the end of this year or the beginning of the next, and will be sent to a much larger training field if he passes the test.

"After surviving in three different sizes of training fields, the semi-wild-bred panda can finally be released into the wild," Tang said.

According to the panda's growth rhythm, Tao Tao is expected to leave his mother and live alone at the age of two.

Another cub and mother were also living in the 20,000-square-meter training field now, together with Tao Tao and Cao Cao, according to the Wolong center.

Giant pandas, known for being sexually inactive, are among the world's most endangered animals.

About 1,600 giant pandas live in China's wild forest, mostly in Sichuan and the northwestern provinces of Shaanxi and Gansu. Approximately, another 300 are in captive-bred programs worldwide, mainly in China.