Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Secret World Of Pandas by Ami Vitale

Thanks to hunting and the destruction of their natural habitat, there are only an estimated 1,600 giant pandas left in the wild and many conservationists privately consider them drifting towards extinction.  But now, there is a glimmer of hope as years of research and failure is finally paying off.  Chinese scientists and their international counterparts have cracked the puzzle of successfully breeding pandas in captivity.

I accompanied Dr. M. Sanjayan on behalf of The Nature Conservancy and a camera crew filming a new series, to air in 2015, on wildlife & humans for PBS and National Geographic TV.  We witnessed two-year old captive born, Zhang Xiang – which aptly means hope – as she took her first steps into the wild.  The breeding and releasing of Giant Pandas into the wild is the brain child of Director Zhang Hemin or “Papa Panda” as he is fondly known.

In 2005, scientists at China’s Wolong National Nature Reserve, in Sichuan province, attempted to release a young male into the wild, but it soon died, likely as a result of a fight with wild pandas. That’s when Director Zhang and his team realized that the captive-born animal didn’t really know how to behave like a panda, and revamped the reserve’s program nearly from scratch. They eventually decided that the best way to raise captive pandas that act like wild ones was to erase all traces of humans from their world and allow the mothers to raise their cubs on their own.

The strategy seems to be working and 
 Zhang Xiang is doing well. Unlike pandas in zoos, she will have no lines of schoolchildren waiting to meet her, nor a fan page on Facebook but China may be on its way to successfully saving its most famous ambassador and in the process put the wild back into an icon. 

Read more: Time Magazine LightBox

All about Ami Vitale

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