We frequently get questions about our project and our collaborative work with 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, we begin the cub selection process by identifying which cubs are genetically similar to the existing panda population at or near the intended release site.
- Next, we assess the overall health of the cubs based on blood chemistry and medical history.
- Finally, we observe the behavior of the cubs and evaluate their mobility, climbing ability, activity level, social aptitude, exploratory behavior, vigilance and other attributes. We measure vigilance by exposing the cubs to various novel stimuli and quantifying their response.
We believe this process helps us identify cubs with the survival skills they will need to thrive in the wild. As we observe our released cubs in the wild, we will refine our theories about which criteria are most important for predicting success.
Q: How do you prepare young pandas for reintroduction?
Our 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 we build with them as cubs allows us 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. We may, from time to time, point out areas or foods for young cubs to explore. From our experience, it is clear that our pandas are naturally afraid of new sounds, sights, and smells, and that this response increases as their habitat becomes progressively wilder. We look for this vigilance in selecting candidates for release. We cannot teach a panda to be a panda, but we do evaluate our cubs to assess their suitability for release.
Q: Why do you play with the pandas?
Play builds trust that separates our scientists from strangers, allowing us to change collars, get blood samples, and weigh the pandas without sedation. In each case, the panda initiates play and we 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. Our 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 we develop with them as cubs. We 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, we play. When the cubs want to explore their environment, we 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 we have assembled an amazing team of conservation biologists to work with the cubs.
Q: What determines when a panda is "ready" to be released?
Each step in our program is evaluated by a variety of Chinese experts and leaders. When it becomes clear to this group that the panda cub is ready, we begin 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 our program, the release decision is more involved. Panda experts from a variety of governmental and non-governmental agencies in China review our 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.
We give 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 we observe our released pandas in the wild.
Q: How do you keep track of the released pandas to be sure they are healthy and thriving?
We will equip each release panda with a battery-operated collar so we can track its movements in the wild. With our human-assisted soft release method, we hope 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 our 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 we learn that our panda is sick or not doing well, we can give it medicine or other care. In the event of injury, we may be able to return it 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 our pandas in the wild, we are better able to recognize and respond to their needs.
We will do all that we can to keep our 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 our released pandas the best chance of success.