Pandas trained for harsh life out in the wild

Chengdu (China Daily/ANN) - At 8 am on Thursday, keepers from the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in the Wolong Nature Reserve used fresh bamboo shoots to lure Cao Cao, a 10-year-old panda, and her male cub, Tao Tao, into separate cages.

Both were transported to a field training area 2,400 to 2,800 meters above sea level, arriving 90 minutes later. When the cages were opened, both ran away and disappeared immediately.

"Staying in the training area will prove vital to Tao Tao before he is sent to the wild in the autumn," said Zhang Hemin, chief of the administrative bureau of the Wolong Nature Reserve, in Wenchuan county, in Sichuan province.

There, Tao Tao, who is 21 months old, will be trained to know other pandas and associated animals, such as the boar, lesser panda and masked civet, as well as his natural enemies, the snow leopard and leopard.

"Tao Tao only knows his mother. To let him know other animals, we will send other pandas to the area, as well as model snow leopards and snow leopards, which can produce the sound of the genuine snow leopard and leopard, so that he will be afraid of his natural enemies. We will also allow him to experience fear of human beings," Zhang said.

Wires surround the area, which covers 240,000 square meters. The area has 200 cameras to monitor Tao Tao and his mother, and no one is allowed to enter.

"It has yet to be decided whether Tao Tao will be returned to the wild alone or together with his mother in the autumn," said Heng Yi, head information officer of the administrative bureau.

In July 2003, Wolong began a project meant to train captive pandas to live on their own. Its first "graduate", Xiang Xiang, was released to the wild in April 2006, after undergoing three years of training. In February 2007, the 5-year-old male panda was found dead, bringing an end to the first phase of the reserve's program.

Researchers believe Xiang Xiang fell from a high place after competing with other members of his species for territory and food.

In June 2010, Wolong resumed the project, planning to train four pandas in three years and release one or two from captivity.

A month later, the reserve brought four female pandas to its field training base 1,800 meters above sea level. On Aug 3, Cao Cao gave birth to Tao Tao.

Researchers, keen to let Tao Tao be raised with as little human interference as possible, decided to observe the mother and son from a distance using special equipment. If they had to get closer, they would don panda costumes.

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