Overview of the Current Giant Panda Reintroduction Program

The redesigned reintroduction program consists of 3 stages for a panda who could be released, but is constantly being updated and reevaluated.

Stage 1 of the training takes place at the Hetaoping Panda Center within the Wolong Panda Reserve.  (Closed to the General Public).  Stage 1 begins when a female panda, who is thought to be pregnant, is put in a semi wild enclosure to give birth. The enclosures are as natural as possible in regard to vegetation they will find in the wild and they are approximately one acre in size. There is a den or lean-to for the mother to birth in, which is similar to what she would find in the wild, where she would use a cave or hollowed out tree trunk to give birth.  If the mother gives birth to a healthy cub, they are left in this enclosure for up to one year.

Since the mother has known humans there is an indoor enclosure where she temporarily stays when the staff needs to clean the outdoor enclosure or perform a health check on the cub.

Image by Tim Flach
Image by Tim Flach

Panda suits are worn by the staff as part of the reintroduction program; they are not worn with the other captive pandas.  This is not to make the cub think a human in a panda suit IS a panda, just to camouflage the human appearance so the cub does not get acclimated to humans. The panda suits are covered in panda urine and fecal matter in order to mask the human scent.

Humans never enter the enclosures without wearing a panda suit. Humans enter the enclosure to clean and deliver bamboo, but do not interact with the pandas. The only time the cub is handled by humans is for a health check.

A health check includes checking the weight and blood and is done as quickly as possible so as not to stress the cub or the mother.

If a panda is ill, he or she would be removed from the reintroduction program and the illness treated at the hospital.

Image by Tim Flach
Image by Tim Flach

Goals / Milestones/ Accomplishments to be achieved in stage 1 before graduating to stage 2

Goals/milestones relate to health and behavioral assessment used to determine whether cubs should graduate to stage 2. Cubs should be extremely healthy with normal weight. During stage 1, they check eyes, teeth, body size etc. The health checks are stopped at about the age of 6 months.

Behaviorally, the cubs are assessed based on a complex evaluation which looks at movement, climbing ability, communication and interaction with the mother.

Behaviors which are monitored include:

  • Eating bamboo and bamboo shoots
  • Locomotion
  • Drinking
  • Resting
  • Sitting
  • Exercise
  • Investigating surroundings
  • Scratching

The protocols are constantly being updated as research progresses. Stage 1 can have multiple mothers and cubs in the program. If a mother in the reintroduction program has twins- the strongest will be left with the mother in the reintroduction program and the second will be raised in the nursery and kindergarten.

Image by Tim Flach
Image by Tim Flach

Stage 2 of the training is for the mother and cub.  Only the strongest, best release candidates from stage 1 of the training move on to stage 2.

Stage two has recently moved from the panda base at Hetaoping to a larger site at Gengda.  There are 3 enclosures that are 300,000 meters each, so there can be 3 mothers and 3 cubs in stage 2 at a time.

The enclosures are completely wild/natural with no indoor enclosures.

The cubs will stay in stage 2 with their mothers until approximately age 2, when cubs in the wild would normally be weaned from their mothers.  Staff will then determine if the cub is truly a good candidate to be released in to the wild.

They will stay in stage 2 for approximately one year. In stage 2, the only reason for human interaction is to check on their condition.

Goals / Milestones/ Accomplishments to be achieved in stage 2 before graduating to stage 3

This stage is basically to determine if the cub can survive in the wild on their own with no human intervention. Can they find water and bamboo? Can they survive the different seasons, as the amount of food can vary according to the seasons? Have they learned to avoid possible dangers such as leopards?

If the cub is failing the training they will be removed from the program.  Inability to find food and water or weight loss would constitute failing the training. If the cub fails the reintroduction training, they would be moved to a captive center.

In Stage 2 the keepers have to stay in a small bunk house at the base of the mountain where the stage 2 wild enclosures are located. They have to hike up to the base camp with all their supplies for a week, then stay for a full week before another crew comes to replace them. The pandas are monitored via GPS collars.

Stage 3 of the reintroduction program is when the cub is released into the wild, their natural habitat.

Once a panda is released the only human contact is through GPS tracking to check on their condition. The batteries in the GPS collars need to be replaced about once a year so the panda is sedated so the battery can be changed.

Stage 3 of the reintroduction program is living in the wild where the cubs live on their own and they must take care of themselves.

Research associated with the Reintroduction Program includes:

  1. Communication between the mother and the cub is a very significant area. Researchers believe that there is more vocalization between the mother and the cub in the reintroduction program because the cub is free to wander out of the mother’s sight. In the captive enclosures, they are closer to one another so not as much vocalization is heard or required.
  2. Research is being conducted now to determine if it is better to release Pandas in the Spring or the Fall.
Image by Tim Flach
Image by Tim Flach

Why Reintroduction is important:

Genetic diversity plays a major role in the survival and adaptability of a species. If there is not enough genetic diversity within a species, the species is more vulnerable to diseases and or genetic defects. It is crucial for pandas to be reintroduced into the wild where they have the potential to interact and/or mate with wild pandas in order to continue to increase the genetic diversity.

It is also important to once again allow Giant Pandas to populate previously inhabited areas where they may roam and thrive.  This is possible due to the on-going efforts to build corridors between previously joined panda habitats as well as replanting bamboo.

Image by Tim Flach
Image by Tim Flach