Training of captive giant pandas to go into the wild yields results, but not without setbacks

By Sun Zhao and Wang Yuqing Source:Global Times Published: 2019/4/23 15:48:51

A giant panda cub rests on a tree branch at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, Southwest China's Sichuan province, on November 10, 2018. Photo: IC

Giant pandas are a cultural icon and a source of national pride in China, the only country that is home to these cuddly creatures. China has spent decades perfecting breeding methods in a bid to save these highly endangered animals.

The captive-bred panda program has achieved remarkable results, with the population growing from 161 in 2002 to 518 in 2016.

"The country has 1,864 wild giant pandas, up from 1,114 decades ago. Panda natural reserves rose to 67 from 15 and the habitat has nearly doubled to 2.58 million hectares," Yang Chao, an official from the National Forestry and Grassland Administration, said at a press conference.

As the situation for giant pandas improved researchers began to shift their focus on sending captive-bred pandas back into the wild.

As of today, 11 giant pandas bred in captivity have been released into the wild, including the nine now living in Liziping Nature Reserve in Ya'an, Southwest China's Sichuan Province.

But these efforts were not successful at first. The first-ever captive-bred giant panda released into the wild fell to its death months after its release, frustrating further efforts to release giant pandas.

Back in the summer of 2003, Xiang Xiang, a 2-year-old male giant panda, was selected to receive training for living in the wild at the Hetaoping Panda Base within the Wolong Nature Reserve for giant pandas in Sichuan.

In April 2006, the well-trained Xiang Xiang, wearing a tracking collar, was released into Balang Mountain at the Wolong Nature Reserve.

In his first few months of freedom, data showed everything was going well.

However, on December 13, 2006, the data indicated that Xiang Xiang was moving along a long and abnormal track, signaling that something was wrong.

After a week-long search, Xiang Xiang was found injured in a bamboo forest with badly wounded hind legs.

After an examination and rest back at the panda base, Xiang Xiang was released again.

Just a few days later, however, the signal from Xiang Xiang's collar continuously weakened until it finally disappeared.

A month later, his dead body was found in snow-covered ground.

An autopsy revealed that Xiang Xiang died of a fatal wound after falling off a cliff during his escape from a wild male panda that had just defeated him in a fight over territory.

Liu Bin, a giant panda breeder in charge of Xiang Xiang, never expected that fights between giant pandas in the wild would be so fierce. He said, "From now on, pandas should be released into places with fewer wild giant pandas, and more efforts should be made to improve captive-bred pandas' capability in attacking and defending."

Back to wilderness

Though frustrated by Xiang Xiang's death, giant panda researchers continue to return captive-bred giant pandas into the wild - at a slower but steadier pace.

But the appearance of a 5-year-old female wild panda named Lu Xin gave researchers cause for optimism.

On March 26, 2009, a feeble Lu Xin was found lying by a roadside and immediately sent to nearby Bifengxia Giant Panda Base in Ya'an.

Lu Xin was severely dehydrated due to an infection of the digestive system. After her recovery, she was relocated to Liziping Nature Reserve in the Xiaoxiangling Mountains, just kilometers away from her home in the Qionglai Mountains.

Less than a month later, the signal from Lu Xin's tracking collar showed that something was wrong: she was not moving.

Dozens of researchers in Liziping immediately went out to look for her. They searched day and night in the mountains, but were unable to find her. Luckily, however, they found her collar, and were greatly relieved to find that it had fallen off.

It would be another two years before they saw her again - this time through infrared cameras, which recorded part of her life in the wild.

To their surprise, Lu Xin had totally integrated with the local wild pandas and even given birth after mating with a wild panda.

A photo of her taken on March 25, 2014 still hangs on the wall of their office building in Liziping. In the photo, she is wearing a new tracking collar and walking outside followed by her cuddly baby panda on a snowy day.

Lu Xin showed that giant pandas can be released into a place other than their home, and her success has brought about hope for efforts to expand isolated panda groups.

Following Lu Xin's release, other giant pandas were returned to the wild, thanks to years of painstaking efforts made by dedicated researchers. They continue to monitor giant pandas to detect any abnormality, fine-tune breeding methods, and train and release giant pandas. Sometimes, they even risk their own lives for them.

Giant pandas are one of the world's endangered species. About 2,000 giant pandas live in the wild, mostly in the mountains of Sichuan Province. Meanwhile, the number of giant pandas in captivity totaled more than 500 by the end of 2017.

The success of Lu Xin and the failure of Xiang Xiang prompted researchers to form a new release plan in which a giant panda cub and their mother panda were trained together. Under this modified plan, giant panda cubs would receive training with their mothers.

Running from danger

Giant panda Tao Tao in the LizipingNature Reserve, SouthwestChina's Sichuan Province, on October 11, 2012. Photo: IC

Captive-bred giant panda Tao Tao and his wild mother Cao Cao are a successful example of this fine-tuned release plan.

Tao Tao lived with its mother Cao Cao at Hetaoping Giant Panda Training Base, which is located within the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan.

Tao Tao went through a three-phase training program before being returned to the wild, which was conducted in different training enclosures. Whenever it was brought to a new training enclosure, Tao Tao would climb a tree or run away.

Huang Yan, the deputy chief engineer of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, who is responsible for implementing the modified plan, expressed delight in seeing this, as this behavior displayed an acute sense of danger.

"Tao Tao acts more like a wild panda. When he hears a sound that is not his mother's footstep, he will intuitively run away or climb a tree," he said.

To test Tao Tao's fight-or-flight response, researchers created a leopard simulation model and played the recorded audio in an area frequented by Tao Tao. After spotting the leopard model, Tao Tao screamed and ran hundreds of meters away in just a few seconds.

From Tao Tao's intuitive response, Huang judged that it was capable of recognizing and avoiding danger.

Following the National Day holidays in 2012, the well-trained Tao Tao ran freely through the forests of Liziping.




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