Tao Tao Becomes the First Captive Bred Panda to be Released into the Wild / Post by Pandas International
CHENGDU, CHINA, Oct. 11 - On Thursday morning, experts from the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP) released an artificially bred and trained panda into the wild, a move which authorities consider a new phase for the nation’s panda protection efforts.
Tao Tao, a two-year-old male, was born in the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan province in August 2010. At 10:13 a.m. Thursday, he walked out of his cage, ran straight toward a bamboo forest in the Lipingzi Nature Reserve in Shimian County, and embraced his new life. According to CCRCGP, Shimian County of Ya’an City, southwest China’s Sichuan Province, was chosen as the release site because the region is suitable natural panda habitat with an estimated population of only 20 wild pandas, a small population for the size of the Liziping Nature Reserve, which will increase Tao Tao’s ability to assimilate to his new home.
Tao Tao’s release marks the second such effort to reintroduce pandas to the wild in China. The first panda released, five-year-old Xiang Xiang, died during fights with other wild pandas for food and territory about a year after release. While the loss was devastating, scientists and experts were able to draw upon their experiences and improve their training methods. In June 2010, experts resumed small-scale training programs for panda reintroduction. The new training focused on the panda cub learning from its mother.
Zhang Hemin, the director of the CCRCGP, noted some substantial differences in the preparation for this release. As opposed to Xiang Xiang’s captive-bred environment, Tao Tao was raised in semi-wild conditions. He was fed and raised by his mother and learned the basics behaviors, such as climbing, from the older animal. He withstood mud-rock flows, snow disasters, and rainstorms, all the while improving his basic skillset. He also learned to fear humans and hide from them. Finally, Tao Tao was trained to recognize enemies and its own kind. As a result, his fighting capabilities and survival skills are more developed.
According to Wu Daifu, Tao Tao’s feeder, “Sending artificially bred pandas back to nature after providing them with training will help them integrate with wild pandas. This will be conducive to improving genetic diversity among wild pandas regionally, increasing the number of wild pandas, and enhancing their survival capabilities.”
While hopes are high, experts are realistic and understand that Tao Tao will face inevitable competition with wild pandas and will have to avoid natural enemies such as bears, leopards and wolves.
"Even though we have used new training methods, Tao Tao is only the second such panda released to nature, and we remain at the experimental stage," said Zhang. The reintroduction of artificially bred pandas to the wild does show, however, that China has entered a new stage in its panda protection efforts. So far, the country has established 64 nature reserves for pandas. These facilities have offered effective protection to more than 70 percent of its wild pandas.
Tao Tao’s movements will be tracked closely thanks to a high frequency GPS collar (which can be seen in the photo above) provided by Pandas International and personally delivered by a PI member. During her recent trip to China, Suzanne Braden, director of Pandas International, had a chance to visit with Huang Yan, Vice Director of Research for the CCRCGP and the person in charge of the reintroduction program. Mr. Yan emphasized that the collar is critical to track not only Tao Tao’s movements, but also to monitor his behavior in the wild. It will be extremely important to continued reintroduction research.
According to Yin Hong, vice chief of the State Forestry Administration, the number of wild pandas in China is estimated to be above 1,600. The number of captive-bred pandas stands at 342.