Author: Ami Vitale (US)
Description: In a region where bad environmental news is common, the Giant Panda might prove to be the exception and a testament to the perseverance and efforts of Chinese scientists and conservationists. By breeding and releasing pandas, augmenting existing populations, and protecting habitat, China is on its way to successfully saving its most famous ambassador and in the process to put the wild back into an icon. As of September 4th, the giant panda is no longer on the endangered species list.
Ye Ye, a 16-year-old giant panda, lounges in a wild enclosure at a conservation center in Wolong Nature Reserve. Her name, whose characters represent Japan and China, celebrates the friendship between the two nations. Ye Ye’s cub Hua Yan (Pretty Girl) is being trained for release into the wild.
Is a panda cub fooled by a panda suit? That’s the hope at Wolong’s Hetaoping center, where captive-bred bears training for life in the wild are kept relatively sheltered from human contact, even during a rare hands-on checkup.
Zhang Hemin - “Papa Panda” to his staff - poses with cubs born in 2015 at Bifengxia Panda Base. “Some local people say giant pandas have magic powers,” says Zhang, who directs many of China’s panda conservation efforts. “To me, they simply represent beauty and peace.”
At Bifengxia, bears mate under keepers’ watch—a far cry from the privacy they have in the wild. The panda base’s operators are finding ways to allow for natural reproductive behaviors such as scent marking, mate choice, and male competition.
Blind, nearly hairless, squeaky, and 1/900 the size of its mother, a newborn panda is as needy as it gets. But it won’t be for long: The panda is among the fastest growing mammals, increasing from around four ounces to four pounds in its first month.
Three-month-old cubs nap in the panda nursery at Bifengxia. A panda mother that bears twins usually fails to give them equal attention. Keepers reduce the load by regularly swapping cubs in and out—making sure each gets both human and panda-mom care.
A cub gets weighed at Bifengxia. In the wild, once they’ve grown to adulthood, female pandas may weigh up to 220 pounds and males up to 250 pounds, and they’ll range from four to six feet long.
Panda keepers do a health check on giant panda named Hua Jiao (Delicate Beauty) before she finishes “wild training” at Wolong’s Hetaoping center which is part of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Sichuan Province, China. Bears have to be trained to live in the wild and mustn’t get used to seeing humans. Even the caretakers who clean the animals’ cages wear costumes that make them look (and smell) like pandas.
Camouflaged by a bamboo thicket, a giant panda will spend much of the day surrounded by and munching on its favorite food at Bifengxia. Pandas used to eat both meat and plants. At least two million years ago, their diet shifted to bamboo.
Gao Xiaowen poses with the stuffed leopard that Wolong keepers use to train young pandas to fear their biggest wild foe. A cub’s reactions to the “predator” and its recorded growls help determine if the bear is prepared to survive on its own.