The project science team seeks to adapt the human assisted soft-release methods used by Dr. Benjamin Kilham to the panda reintroduction project. A key member of the Global Cause team and an expert in bear behavior, Dr. Kilham has successfully reintroduced many orphaned black bear cubs into the wild. With more than 25 years’ experience, he has developed a safe, innovative methodology that we believe can help the project science team return captive giant pandas to the wild and continue to study them there after release.
In the wild, all pandas need certain skills to be successful. These include how to find food and water throughout the year, avoid dangers, socialize and mate. It is difficult to say which of these behaviors is learned from other members of their species (like their mother), and which are written into their DNA.
The reintroduction team provides its project cubs a safe setting in which to explore an environment much like that in the wild. As the cubs mature, their natural instincts and curiosity help them develop the knowledge and skills 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. This is what we mean by a “soft-release”. The trust the team 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.
This is not a simple case of walking giant pandas into the forest and letting them go. To survive in the wild, giant panda cubs must grow physically stronger than they do in captivity and must also develop the skills that young pandas would learn in the first few years of life in the wild.
In the IMAX film, Pandas, we see Ben interact with Squirty, an orphaned bear cub he raised from the age of 7 weeks that has lived in the wild for more than 22 years. Squirty has raised 11 litters of her own cubs in the wild, becoming a grandmother many times over. Ben maintains a strong bond with her, enabling him to study her and her cubs in the wild over multiple generations.
We believe our soft release method may enable us to do many things not possible with pandas before:
• interact with released pandas in the wild;
• identify problems that may endanger them;
• treat the pandas with medicine for parasites, infection or injury;
• change GPS or radio collars without sedating them;
• observe their social behavior and habitat requirements;
• remove them for their own welfare if they are at risk of injury or develop major health issues.
As the IMAX film Pandas shows so vividly, it was the bond that Xiao Bi and Jake had formed with Qian Qian that allowed the project team to save her.
Similar reintroduction methods have been used worldwide for many years. The IMAX film, Born to be Wild, shows their use with African elephants and orangutans.