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Panda Pampering

The panda is much more than just an iconic animal associated with China, instantly recognisable by its distinctive black fur patches around its eyes and ears. It has also been a vital diplomatic tool for the Communist government ever since Richard Nixon's historic visit to Beijing in 1972 to normalise relations between the two countries which led to a pair of pandas being sent to the National Zoo in Washington as a sign of good will. Today there are 51 pandas in about a dozen countries around the world which have been lent to foreign zoos on 10-year loans at an average cost of USD 1 million per year, per pair. And since 1970, when the population of wild pandas had fallen to around 1,000, it has now recovered to around 1,860. Yet the wild pandas' habitats in their native China are fragmented and it is only in captivity that they are currently assured long-term survival. Zhang Hemin, the director of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong near Chengu in Sichuan province, is trying to change that. Since the early 2000s he has been honing the breeding process for captive pandas to such a degree that there is now a glut of captive pandas in captivity, leading him to think of the next stage: rewilding. As with any animal born and raised in captivity, the most pressing obstacle is the sourcing of food, which captive animals expect (and receive) from their human overseers. The captive pandas need to be taught to source their own food and "forget" about their human helpers.

To train them in their independence Mr Zhang has come up with an ingenious solution. Gradually, the pandas' carers are only approaching them when dressed in polyester "panda suits" which may not fool all of the animals, especially since the disguised caretakers walk upright and speak Chinese. But they are designed to slowly wean the animals off their human friends and prepare them for the wild. If rewilding of China's captive pandas should succeed, it would be a huge boost for what is being billed as "a new phase of socialist panda development."

The project faces huge obstacles. Even the more successful attempts at reintroducing other animals into the wild have been achieved with high numbers of casualties. And the panda, with it's low reproductive rate and its almost complete reliance on a single food source - bamboo - is facing more dangers than many. Competition for land in China is unrelenting with a huge population and relatively limited arable land. Swathes of nature that aren't being farmed areh blighted by toxic waterways and other industrial pollution. Wild panda populations are also scattered among China's 67 official panda reserves that are anything but geographically contiguous, raising the danger of inbreeding and a lack of genetic diversity.

Adam Dean went to visit the Wolong research centre in Sichuan province so see how Mr Zhang's conservation efforts are progressing and to what extent his technique, adopted after he watched a film about Chinese soldiers hiding in the jungle dressed in camouflage uniforms, is working on the captive panda population.
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