Releasing giant pandas into the wild is a tricky business. A giant panda born in captivity at the Chengdu Research Base of the Giant Panda Breeding in Sichuan province died in September 2016 after being attacked by an unknown animal.

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The IUCN has downgraded the giant panda from "endangered" to "vulnerable". At the end of 2013, there were 1,864 pandas in the wild. As Huang Zhiling reports from Wolong, Southwest China's Sichuan province, plenty of work remains to be done.

Releasing giant pandas into the wild is a tricky business. A giant panda born in captivity at the Chengdu Research Base of the Giant Panda Breeding in Sichuan province died in September 2016 after being attacked by an unknown animal.

In March, He Sheng, a 3-year-old male panda, was released into the Liziping Nature Reserve in Shimian, a county in Sichuan. But experts at the base became concerned after receiving erratic signals from a GPS tag on his neck on Sept 27 and launched a search for the animal. The panda's body was discovered the next day with wounds on its right shoulder, ear and leg.

An examination concluded that the panda had been attacked by an unknown animal and the wounds had caused a bacterial infection that resulted in fatal blood poisoning.

 

Hua Yan and Zhang Meng (in cage), two female giant pandas born in the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, were released into the wild in Shimian county, Sichuan province, in October. He Haiyang / For China Daily

 

Researchers caught Tao Tao for physical examination in Wolong, Sichuan province in October 2012, a preparation for releasing it into the wild. Tao Tao is the first artificially-bred panda finishing its wild-environment adaption experiment. Provided to China Daily

 

Zhang Xiang (right) and his mother Zhang Ka in the wild environment in Wolong, Sichuan province, in November 2013. Provided to China Daily

He Sheng was one of the first pandas chosen by the Chengdu base in 2014 for training to live in the wild.

At a meeting in June that year, experts said the animal had the ability to adapt to the wild because it could find food and water as well as protect itself from danger.

Training captive pandas for life in the wild is aimed at enlarging the wild giant panda population and protecting the endangered species.

According to China's fourth panda census, released in February 2015, there were 1,864 wild pandas in the world by the end of 2013.

"But releasing captive pandas into the wild can be risky," says Zhang Hemin, the executive director of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda.

The center, located in the Wolong National Nature Reserve in Wenchuan county in Sichuan, which comes under the State Forestry Administration has released seven panda cubs into the wild since 2006, excluding He Sheng, and two have died.

The first casualty was Xiang Xiang, a male released in 2006 at the age of 5.

He was found dead in the woods a year later, with broken ribs and injuries to his ears and back.

Researchers suspected that he might have taken refuge in a tree after fighting wild pandas.

His death forced handlers to revise their approach to training pandas to survive in the wild.

They then started training female pandas to be released into the wild.

"Female pandas are more likely to integrate into the wild panda population. But releasing a captive panda into the wild cannot be hailed a success until the bear has been accepted by a wild panda, and has one or more cubs," says Zhang Hemin.

As for the other pandas released into the wild, there is Zhang Xiang.

In 2013, Zhang Xiang, a 2-year-old female, was released into Liziping.

Then, in 2016, researchers wanted to capture her for a checkup.

So, using information from a GPS tag on her neck, they managed to find her after trekking in the mountains for nearly three hours.

But she ran away at the sight of humans.

Although no physical checkup was conducted, she is believed to be in good health, said Zhang Guiquan, a senior panda expert at the center.

Meanwhile, Xue Xue, who was released in 2014, survived only 40 days.

Zhang Guiquan said it was likely she died of trauma from being caged for several days before the release.

But although two pandas died, the other five released into the wild are faring well.

Among the survivors is Tao Tao, a 2-year-old male panda from the center.

He was released into the wild in Liziping in October 2012, and was discovered in a tree on the plateau more than 3,000 meters above sea level on Oct 30, 2013.

A veterinarian tranquilized the frightened bear with a rifle dart, and Tao Tao fell into a net.

A blood test showed the panda was in good health, says Yang Zhisong, an expert in zoology at China West Normal University in Nanchong, Sichuan, who was on the scene.

Tao Tao weighed 42 kg when he was released in 2012. But when he was found a year later, he had gained at least 10 kg, says Yang.

It would have been close to impossible to release pandas into the wild if the center set up in 1980 under an agreement between the World Wide Fund for Nature, formerly the World Wildlife Fund, and the Chinese government had not resolved the difficulties in panda breeding.

In 1992, the center was home to only 10 pandas and it had to catch wild pandas for research.

But even after trapping captive pandas, it was difficult to get them to mate, and to keep the cubs alive.

As researchers worked to solve the problems from 1992 to 2006, the center built up the world's largest captive panda population.

"And it is now home to 234 captive pandas, while the whole world has 471 captive pandas," Zhang Hemin said.

Explaining how difficult the task was, Zhang Hemin says that researchers at first did not know panda habits.

So, thinking that they preferred a solitary life, researchers kept each panda isolated in a tiny den and fed them only bamboo.

As a result, the pandas became depressed and had difficulty becoming ruttish, he said.

Then, in the course of studies initiated in 1992, researchers provided captive pandas with more opportunities to communicate socially with each other and play.

Male and female pandas were then swapped into the dens of the opposite sex so that each would know the smell of the other.

"We also showed sexually mature pandas videos of their peers having sex," says Zhang Hemin who started studying pandas in 1983.

As for food, the researchers came up with other innovative ideas.

"In the wild, pandas eat bamboo. They seek out the best plants - the ones that receive adequate sunshine. But since we could not provide that kind of bamboo for the captive pandas, we created a biscuit rich in trace elements and vitamins for them," he says.

As for re-creating a more natural environment for the pandas, the researchers placed the biscuits in places the pandas could not find easily, aiming to get them to move around and be more active.

"Also, to make them play, we froze fruits before giving them to the pandas. So, they had to play with the fruits until they thawed if they wanted to eat them," Zhang Hemin said.

Another problem that had to be resolved was abandonment.

Abandonment used to happen because 50 percent of the newborns are typically twins and the mother would end up caring for only one.

"A mother panda would first try to care for both babies, but several hours later, when she realized she could not, she would abandon one baby. If she tried to support both, both would die. So the mother deserted one baby even if it cried," says Zhang Hemin.

Zhang Hemin says the researchers at first did not know how to handle the abandonment problem.

So, they settled on a course that was part philanthropy and part trickery.

They would take away the deserted baby and feed it milk.

Then, they would switch it with the favored cub from time to time. So the mother unwittingly supported both.

Researchers also emulated the mother panda in other ways.

The mother would lick different parts of the newborn cub, including its anus to get its droppings out.

So, researchers used a cotton bud to mimic the mother while touching the deserted cub to get the droppings out. This ensured the cubs' survival, Zhang Hemin said.

In a significant development, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature said in early September that China's giant panda had been downgraded from "endangered" to "vulnerable" on a global list of species at risk of extinction, saying evidence from national surveys indicated the previous population decline had been reversed.

But China's State Forestry Administration disagrees saying it is too early to say the giant panda is no longer endangered.

China's fourth panda census showed 1,864 wild pandas and 375 captive pandas worldwide as of the end of 2013. This compares with 1,596 wild pandas and 164 captive pandas worldwide in the third census carried out over 2000-2002.

And 24 of the 33 groups of wild pandas found in the fourth census are endangered, with some groups having fewer than 30 pandas.

Eighteen groups have fewer than 10 pandas each and are in danger of extinction.

Zhang Hemin is against the downgrading but says it shows an acknowledgment of China's achievements in panda breeding.

Contact the writer at huangzhiling@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 05/01/2017 page6)