While the panda is officially no no longer endangered, there are fewer than 2,000 giant pandas in China – the only place the black and white endangered bears live in the wild. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding has managed to successfully breed baby pandas in their dozens, despite a low birth rate. The trickier part is how to get them back into their natural habitat.
Human-raised pandas have great difficulty surviving in the wild. Only two out of ten released bred in captivity and released since 1983 have survived, with six sent back to the breeding centre – due to dramatic weight loss, not adapting to their environment, or even being killed by wild pandas.
At ‘Panda Valley’, Zhang ‘Papa Panda’ Hemin is focusing on training them to survive out there. Almost 150 cameras allow him to constantly monitor the panda equivalent of preschool as cubs learn how to pick the best bamboo, mothers chase off predators, and they learn to climb. At this stage it is important that there is no human contact at all, not even human odours. “Usually you put some panda urine and faeces on panda costumes for the workers to wear when they leave food for the pandas,” says Zhang.
This ‘Big Brother’ style observation ensures every aspect is known about the suitability of each individual panda to be released. The baby pandas then graduate to a wilder setting. Training pandas born in captivity to live in the wild takes about two years – and it’s up to Papa Panda to decide when they are ready to live a wild life.
Gaby is a wildlife documentary producer with broadcast credits on BBC, National Geographic, Discovery and PBS.
Zhang ‘Papa Panda’ Hemin, Director, Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding