Sunday, 25 July 2010

Reintroduction adventure

Scientists have released four pregnant captive pandas into a large but fenced-in area of bamboo forest in the hope that their cubs - once born - will take to life in the wild.

It sounds like a convoluted reintroduction protocol doesn't it? After all, why not just release some pandas into the wild? Well the only time that was been tried - in 2006 - it was not a resounding success. The male panda Xiang-Xiang turned up dead within a year with injuries suggesting he'd got into a scrap with other pandas. When I was in China in March, I was lucky enough to get an interview with Zhou Xiaoping, Assistant Chief Engineer at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda at Wolong. He was heavily involved in the 2006 reintroduction effort and was very open with me about the project's shortcomings. "We thought that three years of training was enough for him," he told me. But it wasn't. With hindsight, most people agree that reintroducing a female would have had a greater chance of success: she would be more readily accepted into an existing panda community than a new male that turns up out of nowhere.

Dr Zhou talked through several possible next-steps for the Wolong staff in their effort to reintroduce pandas from captivity into the wild. One of them involved allowing a mother to give birth in a large, naturalistic enclosure where her offspring has only rare encounters with humans and then, when the infant is old enough set it free. I heard that Vanessa Hull of Michigan State University was involved and contacted her when I got back from China to see if I could find anything out. But she was admirably cagey. "I am not able to talk publicly about my work right now, as we are in a transition period that is a bit sensitive," she emailed me.

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald, which is based on a release from China's Xinhua News Agency, reveals that the reintroduction is already underway. I knew the CCRCGP would try something like this but I am surprised at how soon. Unfortunately, my book The Way of the Panda is now at a stage where I cannot add anything substantial. So it will go to press without this interesting latest experiment. That's annoying but inevitable when there's so much good work going on.

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