Giant pandas Gongzai and Yingying seem unusually excited. Gongzai wants Yingying to come down from the tree and he tugs and slaps his half-brother's legs. They both fall on their fluffy bottoms and start wrestling in a ball of black-white fur. After the fun is over they walk away and begin to devour a huge bundle of bamboo that's been dropped in their pen.
These icons of China's animal kingdom have recently been moved to the Panda Valley research center in Dujiangyan, Southwest China's Sichuan Province, less than an hour's drive from where they were born in Chengdu. Their new quarters is a 500-square-meter concrete pen surrounded by a glass wall giving them a nice view of the green mountains in the background.
The 3-year-old brothers, who were born and have lived their lives at the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding, have been moved to Panda Valley to undergo a boot camp that will drastically change their coddled lifestyle. Gongzai and Yingying, along with four other giant pandas between the ages of 2 and 4, are being groomed to go wild.
Their very life depends on how well they do during the training program that is expected to last several years.
The idea is to teach these captive-bred animals survival skills they'll need when they join their rougher, independent wild cousins and hopefully grow the number of pandas living in nature.
It's not the first time China's giant panda researchers have tried to release a bear that was born in captivity. He lasted only a year.
Re-wilding not the only solution
The new attempts at re-wilding pandas have critics who say the experiments endanger the animals' lives. They say pandas born in captivity lack natural born instincts, and the expensive programs deflect attention from the real cause of the continuing decline of bears in the wild. Critics say better conservation of their shrinking habitat might better help the existing population to grow.
Yet experts involved in raising captive bears say training and releasing the pandas to the wild is urgent and necessary.
"We need to release the captive-bred pandas to increase the number and improve the genetics of the smaller groups of wild pandas," said Huang Yan, a professor at the China Conservation and Research Centre for Giant Pandas is located not far from the newly built Panda Valley.
China has over 1,600 pandas living in the wild, according to the last census which was taken almost 10 years ago. The census also showed that human encroachment on the bears' natural habitat has isolated small groups of the bears who can't migrate to mate with other pockets of pandas.
Researchers behind the new release program at Panda Valley say Gongzai and Yingying still need time to habituate to their new home and won't begin formal training for several months.
Gongzai and Yingying at their panda pen in Dujiangyan, Sichuan Province. Photo: Xuyang Jingjing/GT
The six pandas, all adolescents, now consume hundreds of kilos of bamboos a day that are harvested from the mountains. They were also treated to a special bun made of corn, rice, eggs and other nutrients.
"After they adapt to their new environment, we'll start to cut the bun from their diet and gradually train them to find food on their own," said Qi Dunwu, a researcher at Panda Valley attached to the Chengdu panda base, which is raising 108 pandas that were bred in captivity.
Learning to recognize danger
Researchers plan to fence off a large area in the mountains as their training ground. The pandas will also be taught how to recognize danger, said Qi.
"For example, if we want to teach them that a certain area is dangerous, we will make loud noises to scare the pandas," he said. "Or we'll smear an area with the pheromones of other, stronger pandas to teach them to be cautious of encounters with other bears."
Li Mingxi, who is overseeing the project at Dujiangyan, said each step of the training program is being carefully evaluated.
"We have a draft manual but we will consult with experts before finalizing it," said Li. "Everything we're doing now is on a trial basis. We are trying to find the proper way to train and release them."
It takes two-and-a-half hours to drive from Gongzai and Yingying's home at the Panda Valley research center at Dujiangyan, to the China Conservation and Research Centre for Giant Pandas in the Wolong Nature Reserve. The wilderness area was hit hard by the Wenchuan earthquake four years ago, and the roads have not been fully repaired and mudslides are a constant danger. The earthquake killed two of the pandas being raised at the center and another escaped and is presumed to have died, likely of starvation.
The research center at the Wolong reserve has set free giant pandas that had been previously rescued from the wild but these attempts have met with only limited success. Some lost weight and were recaptured before they starved to death, others were presumed to have died prematurely and a few are thought to have survived their return to the wild.
The center has only once attempted to set free a giant panda that was born in captivity.
In 2007, Xiangxiang, a 5-year-old male panda, who had been trained for two years before his release, survived a year before being killed by other pandas. His tragic death, which made headlines, has taught trainers a number of lessons.
"Xiangxiang was already 3 when he was trained. This time we are starting with new-born pandas," said Professor Huang, whose center is taking a different approach to the one being tried at Panda Valley. "We're letting the mother teach her cub some survival skills without human interference."
Four baby pandas, all born in an encircled "half-wild" environment, are giving hope to the researchers here.
Three 1-year-old pandas are in their first phase of training. They live in a 3,000-square-meter enclosure at the foot of a mountain. Their keepers feed their mother a few times a day, but otherwise leave them on their own.
Another panda, Taotao who is 18 months, lives in a 40,000-square-meter area deeper in the mountain with his mother Caocao, a 10-year-old who was rescued from the wild. The mother and son forge for their own food and receive no helping hand from humans.
Each day the researchers patrol the perimeter of the enclosures wearing camouflage suits. They make sure the fence is secure and retrieve data from GPS devices worn by the bears. The area also has dozens of surveillance cameras.
Huang says the researchers might soon start teaching the young pandas how to recognize their enemies by broadcasting noises or scattering the droppings of other animals.
Minimal human contact
The researchers go to some extremes to minimize human contact and reduce their dependence on handouts. When the researchers need to handle a cub for a physical exam they wear panda bear costumes.
The young bears haven't lost their fear of the strange animals they see walking on two legs. Hearing the footsteps of their keepers, the cubs quickly climb up a tall tree and hide. If they had been raised in a zoo they would have rushed to hug the keepers' legs and beg for food.
The researchers plan to move Taotao to an even larger training field and release him to the wild by the end of this year when he is 2, the age pandas usually leave their mothers.
Professor Huang says other experts will be consulted to determine if Taotao is fit to be released in an area known to be home to wild giant pandas.
Both panda training bases, at Dujiangyan and at Wolong, have ambitious plans to repopulate the wilds with captive-bred pandas. The Wolong base plans to train and release 15 to 20 captive-bred pandas before 2015, and the Dujiangyan has base plans to release 100 pandas over the next half century.
Still a tourist attraction
The Panda Valley base at Dujiangyan will cover 1.4 square kilometers after construction is completed at a cost of 300 million yuan. It is expected to hold 30 to 40 pandas and apparently not all will be trained and released. The local government hopes to recoup its investment by attracting more tourists to the base.
Some zoologists and conservationists question the training programs and urge more attention be paid to the study and protection of giant pandas in the wild.
"It would be a mistake to think releasing captive-bred pandas to the wild will solve the problem, while neglecting the conservation of their wild habitat," said Wang Dajun, from the School of Life Science at Peking University, who has been tracking and observing the animal in the wild for 20 years.
"Despite more than three decades of research we know nothing about how pandas interact in the wild; how can we release a panda into a situation like that?" said Wang.
"They should know that it's much harder to introduce a male into a group than a female, as a male is considered a competitor while the female is a reproductive resource," said Wang, who has never been consulted by either of the release programs.
"With all the attention being given to panda breeding and now re-wilding, research on the wild bears and conservation of their habitat is likely to further fall behind," lamented Wang.