By Benjamin Cost
Six giant pandas, aged two to four years old, are scheduled to leave captivity and enter the wild on January 11, 2012. The pandas – named Xingrong, Xingya, Gongzai, Yingying, Zhizhi and Qiq – were deemed the most fit for release by a test that evaluated the physical condition and genetic origins of 108 animals housed in the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
Their new home will be “Panda Valley,” a 134 hectare wild space where their activities are to be closely monitored by Chengdu Panda Base researchers. Scientists hope that immersion in the forest preserve will promote normal breeding and eating patterns and trump old captivity-fostered habits. Fauna ecologist Qi Dunwu of the Chengdu center states:
“One of the priorities is to improve their capability to survive. We also need to lessen their contacts with human beings and gradually feed them bamboo from target reintroduction areas instead of fodder concentrate or other additives.”
To acclimate themselves to “Panda Valley,” the elite six will undergo a series of adaptation exercises that will expose them to new climates and environments. Experts agree that training and releasing six pandas together will be better for the animal’s survival odds than habituating and loosing them individually. The researchers are taking great pains to ensure that the animals will thrive in their new habitat with good reason.
Out of the ten attempts since 1983 to successfully release captivity-raised giant pandas into the wilderness, all but two have backfired. Although one pair of pandas is currently alive and well, six were recalled to captivity due to severe weight fluctuation, one was confirmed dead in 2007, and another still missing.
The deceased panda, a five year old named Xiang Xiang who was part of a 2003 release program, was discovered dead in the Wolong preserve. But it remains unclear whether his death occurred at the paws of fellow pandas or as a result of tumbling off a cliff.
In general, efforts to facilitate the survival of China’s most beloved animal have been notoriously unsuccessful. Everybody remembers those less than fruitful attempts several years ago to goad pandas into copulating by showing them “panda porn”.
In fact, one of the main issues illuminated by the failed sex endeavor is that currently, pandas are a conservation reliant species; meaning their survival depends on humans. So without our ooohing and awwwing over these adorable fur bundles which inevitably prompts preservation policies (their human appeal almost appears part of their survival strategy), they would inevitably go extinct. Not to mention that the panda’s 45-pound-a-day bamboo requisite and their mandatory huge tracts of bamboo habitat further impinges upon their survival odds in today’s booming China.
Nonetheless we’re counting on the entry of our six adventurous pandas into the wild to finally break tradition and bring about the start of pandas thriving on their own terms, without human intervention. It’s an enormous undertaking, but so far, things are looking up.
“Panda Valley” – something of a Jurassic park meets Fern Gully for pandas?