We frequently get questions about the panda project and our support for the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (CRB). Here is a selection of them:
Q: How does the team choose which pandas will eventually be reintroduced?
In close coordination with CRB, the science team follows a careful, systematic process in selecting the panda cubs best suited for reintroduction. It considers their health, genetics and comparative activity.
Selecting the best available cubs is a multistep process:
- Based on IUCN recommendations, it begins the cub selection process by identifying which cubs are genetically similar to the existing panda population at or near the intended release site.
- Next, it assesses the overall health of the cubs based on blood chemistry and medical history.
- Finally, it observes the behavior of the cubs and evaluates their mobility, climbing ability, activity level, social aptitude, exploratory behavior, vigilance and other attributes. The scientists measure vigilance by exposing the cubs to various novel stimuli and quantifying their response.
We believe this process helps identify cubs with the survival skills they will need to thrive in the wild. As the team observes its released cubs in the wild, it will refine its theories about which criteria are most important for predicting success.
Q: How do scientists prepare young pandas for reintroduction?
The project science team provides the cubs a safe setting in which to explore an environment much like that in the wild. As they mature, their natural instincts and curiosity help them develop the skills and tools they will need to survive in panda habitat. In time they are ready for walks in the wild and eventually they will choose not to return to the enclosure. The trust it builds with them as cubs allows it to assist them later, monitoring them in the wild without the need to recapture, anesthetize, or otherwise cause them stress or unnecessary harm.
Humans cannot teach pandas how to eat bamboo, drink water, or climb trees, any more than they can teach them to breathe or be black and white; pandas do these things naturally. Scientists may, from time to time, point out areas or foods for young cubs to explore. From our experience, it is clear that pandas are naturally afraid of new sounds, sights, and smells, and that this response increases as their habitat becomes progressively wilder. The team looks for this vigilance in selecting candidates for release. It cannot teach a panda to be a panda, but it does evaluate the cubs to assess their suitability for release.
Q: Why do the scientists play with the pandas?
Play builds trust that separates the scientists from strangers, allowing them to change collars, get blood samples, and weigh the pandas without sedation. In each case, the panda initiates play and they respond. As a panda grows bigger and older, its interest (and our ability to play safely) declines. While Qian Qian still trusts Jake and Xiao Bi, she no longer plays with them as she did when she was younger.
Capturing and chemically anesthetizing an animal, even if it is otherwise healthy, always carries a risk for the animal. The team’s ability to conduct health assessments on released pandas and change their tracking collars without using immobilizing drugs will depend on the level of trust it develops with them as cubs. Scientists build this trust through unstructured positive interactions, which means that when the team members enter an enclosure the cub decides the extent and details of the interaction.
When the cubs want to play, they play. When the cubs want to explore their environment, they go for a walk. Many times they simply want to eat or rest in a tree, which they will do. This work takes incredible patience and dedication; fortunately the project team has assembled an amazing group of conservation biologists to work with the cubs.
Q: What determines when a panda is "ready" to be released?
Each step in the program is evaluated by a variety of Chinese experts and leaders. When it becomes clear to this group that the panda cub is ready, the team begins the process of walking it outside its enclosure to explore the wild environment there. When it is ready, the panda will decide to stay outside and transition to the wild.
In the wild, pandas naturally leave their mother and gain independence at roughly 18 months old. For the project, the release decision is more involved. Panda experts from a variety of governmental and non-governmental agencies in China review the team's work and make an official decision to authorize release. Once this group sees all of the relevant data and decides that the candidate is ready, the process of walking the panda outside the enclosure can begin.
The team gives the panda the option to return to the enclosure at any time. Based on our experience and that of other reintroduction programs around the world, eventually the panda will choose to stay in the wild and not return to the enclosure.
Q: What happens to a panda once it is released into the wild? Where does it go? What does it do?
Every panda will start by doing what pandas do best, searching for and eating bamboo. After that, each panda will choose its own path.
The released pandas may stay within the release area or move away into another reserve. It might take months or even years for them to develop a home range. Each panda must integrate into the social structure of any existing panda population near the release site.
Unfortunately, scientists know very little about the social dynamics of pandas; what is known comes from only a few studies at a few locations. This is an area of research that needs additional focus. We hope to gain important new insights as the team observes its released pandas in the wild.
Q: How do you keep track of the released pandas to be sure they are healthy and thriving?
The team will equip each release panda with a battery-operated collar so it can track its movements in the wild. With the human-assisted soft release method, it hopes to be able to inspect these collars regularly and change them as needed.
Post-release monitoring is one of the most critical aspects of the success of any reintroduction program. This requires a way to find the animal, generally through a GPS (satellite global positioning system) or VHF (radio frequency) collar. The signals that are sent from these collars are used to locate the pandas and monitor their status. Simply put, if you can’t track the animal, there is no way to determine its status or behavior.
Changing collars on uncooperative animals is difficult, stressful, and dangerous. It requires capturing and restraining them, usually with drugs, and can have adverse reactions, including death.
One of the biggest advantages of the human assisted soft-release method is better post-release monitoring. If the panda allows a few trusted humans to change its collar in exchange for a small reward (say an apple), it doesn’t need to be chased, trapped, anesthetized, or restrained.
Q: What happens if a panda is sick or not doing well once it is released?
If the team learns that a panda is sick or not doing well, it can give it medicine or other care. In the event of injury, it may be able to return the panda to the enclosure for medical care and rehabilitation before releasing it back into the wild.
One lesson that we have learned from the successful releases of other species, including bears and California condors, is that post-release assistance can be an important factor in successful reintroduction. By monitoring released pandas in the wild, we are better able to recognize and respond to their needs.
The team will do all that it can to keep the released pandas healthy and safe. However, in any release program there is always a risk that animals will be injured or die. This is the sad reality of the wild. Our objective is to give the released pandas the best chance of success.