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.