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August 23, 2011

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Good news about 'wilding' panda

CAPTIVE-BRED giant pandas have not been able to survive in the wild, but there's promising news from a "wilding" training program for one-year-old Tao Tao in Sichuan Province. Ni Yuanjin and Sun Yang report.

Giant panda Tao Tao, the world's first panda born in a near-wild environment to a captive-bred mother, has shown an awareness of territory and has the capacity to survive in the wild after a year of training, panda experts say.

But Tao Tao, who was born on August 3, 2010, has at least another year of "wilding" training and another semi-wild field to master before he can finally be released into the wild.

But the signs are promising.

A year ago, Tao Tao was in a semi-wild panda training base in Hetaoping, affiliated to the Wolong Giant Panda Protection and Research Center in Sichuan Province. In the past year he and his mother Cao Cao survived mud slides, snowstorms and torrential rains.

The positive report on Tao Tao's survival prospects was delivered Sunday by Tang Chunxiang, an expert at the Wolong center.

Tang said the panda is totally independent of synthetic foods offered by man, weighs 25 kilograms and is aware of his territory.

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

For some years the Wolong center has wanted 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, was found dead in the snow in February 2007. After years of "wilding" training in a captive environment, Xiang Xiang had been released into the wild on April 28, 2006 - the first captive-bred panda to be returned to the wild.

In July of that year, after a couple of months, he was found to have established a territory of five to 10 square kilometers, according to Zhang Hemin, chief of the Wolong center.

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

According to Zhang, for captive-bred pandas, the keys to survival in the wild are learning how to escape from enemies (wild dogs, snow leopards, eagles, especially dangerous for cubs), getting enough food, finding a safe place to sleep and establishing an awareness of territory. All are difficult.

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 possible human intervention, might be a solution.

"We made some changes for the second program," expert Tang says. In July 2010, four well-selected, captive-bred pregnant pandas were sent to a near-wild environment before giving birth. The pandas, named Cao Cao, Zi Zhu, Ying Ping and Zhang Ka, aged 4 to 5 years, are expected to raise their cubs in the near-wild until they are 3 to 4 years old.

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 giant panda costumes to reduce the animals' reliance on humans," Tang says.

Workers also simulate sounds and smells of panda's natural enemies, aimed at improving their vigilance and raising their chances to survive in the wild, he says. Small animals, such as squirrels and rabbits, are released into the woods.

In February this year, 6-month-old Tao Tao and his mother passed a survival evaluation by panda experts and were sent to a 20,000-square-meter training field, much larger than their 2,400-square-meter area where the cub was born.

In this second 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 says.

According to the plan, Tao Tao will be evaluated at the end of this year or beginning of next year and then sent to a third, much larger field if he is deemed to have acquired enough skills.

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

According to panda development, Tao Tao is expected to leave his mother and live alone at the age of 2.

Another cub and mother are also living in the same 20,000-square-meter training field, together with Tao Tao and Cao Cao.

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

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


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