After being in China for almost a month and a half I have adjusted quite well and I am really enjoying my time. After being in a captive environment and Bifengxia Panda base I started to think about the wild populations. Bifengxia is part of tThe China Conservation and Research Program for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP) so breedings that are part of PDXWildlife studies produce some cubs that will eventually be trained for reintroductions. Since there is a lack of habitat and space for the pandas, reintroductions have not always been an immediate thought. Over the past few years it has been looked into more and more and a few pandas are going into training and some have already been released. I would like to focus this post on wild populations and what the Panda bases are doing to bring those numbers higher.
The CCRCGP started a reintroduction team to begin research on wild training of captive pandas in July of 2003. The program has grown and changed with time since then as new research and more interest about the program has increased. The program has grown substantially since the first attempt in 2003 with Xiang Xiang who was the first giant panda to enter the wild training program. He entered the program on July 8, 2003 and spent three years training in semi-wild enclosures. On April 29, 2006, Xiang Xiang was reintroduced into the wild wearing location and tracking monitors. He had success for about a year, but sadly he did not survive. They believe a wild male panda and Xiang Xiang got into a quarrel for territory, food, or a mate and he did not survive the encounter.
These were the first strides into reintroduction programs and after Xiang Xiang staff went back to the training and altered their training program to improve reintroduction success. In 2010, there was a meeting held by the CCRCGP of Wolong in Dujiangyan for Phase 2 of the giant panda reintroduction program. During 2010 and 2006, Scientists looked back over the reintroduction plan and re-evaluated the plan of action, in part delayed by the devastating earthquake to Wolong in 2008 that put the reintroduction program on hold while the facilities responded to the crisis. Eventually, experts concluded that potential reintroduction pandas should have as little as possible human contact and, thus, the famous giant panda suits were born. On July 20, 2010 four pregnant pandas (Cao Cao, Zi Zhu, Ying Ping, and Zhang Ka) were the first official pandas to be involved in phase 2 at the Hetaoping Wild Training Base in Wolong. Cao Cao was the first panda to deliver a cub in the wild training base with no human involvement on August 3, 2010. The mother and cub (Tao Tao) stayed in the semi-wild environment with no human intervention and they did very well.
May of 2012, Tao Tao and Cao Cao were released into the third and final phase of the training program. They were placed in a 240,000-square-meter enclosure at about 2,000 meters above sea-level in a mountainous forest habitat. As Tao Tao started to separate more frequently from his mother, experts judeged it was time for Tao Tao to start repopulating wild panda numbers. He was released in October of 2012, after his 2nd birthday to Liziping Nature Reserve at Shimian, Ya’an in Sichuan Province. His movements are monitored by a radio tracking collar and he still wears it today – he is about to celebrate his 5th birthday in the wild! Another two-year-old panda that went through the similar training to Tao Tao, Zhang Xiang, was released on November 6, 2013 and is also doing well in the wild.
Unfortunately, like Xiang Xiang, not all reintroductions have been as successful as Tao Tao and Zhang Xiang. Last year, two female pandas (Xue Xue and Xin Yuan) were scheduled to be released into the wild. Sadly, Xue Xue was relased in October, but fell ill due to a bamboo rat bite and died about a month after her release. Before she fell ill Xue Xue was adapting vey well to the new environment and providing for herself in the wild. Xin Yuan fell ill towards the end of her training and died before her release. With the recent two deaths of reintroduced pandas in 2014 there are many concerns about the program. However, even though these two pandas fell ill during reintroduction training, all wild and captive pandas are susceptible to disease as is evidenced by the recent distemper scare in late 2014 and early 2015. The program uses what is referred to in the conservation world as an “adaptive management” program which simultaneously meets one or more resource management objectives (in this case reintroducing pandas into the wild) and accrues information needed to improve future management. As such, the program has undergone many changes due to new research, making minute changes to protocols that are working for the training, and removing or changing protocols that are not working. The pandas are released at the age of 2, but only after they have naturally separated from their mothers. The pandas can not stay in captivity very long after this time period because they will begin to depend on humans for food and will no longer be capable of foraging on their own in the wild.
Reintroduction is a very tricky project with not just pandas, but many other endangered mammals. Unfortunately due to the difficulty of reintroducing any specie into the wild, some may die. Although this is very sad news, the goal behind it all is to improve on techniques of training so there can be more success in the future. The goal of reintroduction programs are usually to 1) supplement wild populations and/or 2) increase the variation in the wild population gene pool, low variation in gene pools can have negative impacts on wild populations. With success often comes failures but out of failures there is also often success.
In my own opinion, I have always been interested in endangered species and habitat destruction and I think that CCRCGP is making great strides toward the ultimate goal of repopulating what was lost. As a fairly new program, there is much to be learned from success and failures and they are definitely building off of the new research and information they are gathering from all the releases they have done. I hope to one day contribute to the reintroduction of Giant Pandas potentially help expand their habitat and give back what they have lost.