Reintroduction Program – 2016

Zhang Meng
Zhang Meng

China released its sixth and seventh pandas at the Liziping Nature Reserve in southwest China’s Sichuan Province on October 20, 2016. Reintroduction is essential in an attempt to diversify the species’ genetic pool. As the cages opened, Hua Yan (3 years old) and Zhang Meng (2 years) did not hesitate and ran into the wild. The two pandas disappeared into the mountains within seconds.

“Releasing them to the wild is just the beginning. We will continue to monitor them and see whether they can survive in the wild,” said Huang Yan, a panda reintroduction specialist. “What we are most looking forward to is whether they can mate and breed in the wild.”

“The purpose of captive breeding is to keep the number of pandas at a stable level; but as a species they belong to the wild,” Zhang Hemin Director of China Conservation and Research for the Giant Pandas (CCRCGP)

“Pandas are adorable, and people love them. But they are not pets, and they should go back to the wild. And the process of captive breeding, wild training and releasing is a road that must be travelled,” Zhang said.

“They do not just release the animal. There is work before it is released, while it is being released and after it is released. So they learn and they can build on that data, so next time they can release it more successfully. They are learning from each of the reintroductions,” said David Wildt, head of the Center for Species Survival at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington D.C.

Hua Yan

In 2016, pandas were downgraded from “endangered” to “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “But this does not mean downgrading protection efforts,” said Zhang. “We still face difficulties such as habitat fragmentation and isolation, so protection and the reintroduction program is definitely necessary.”

In order to diversify the genetic pool of pandas, CCRCGP and the Smithsonian Institution have carried out cooperative programs and bred the most diversified panda species in captivity.

“Releasing captive pandas back into the wild will bring diversified genes back to the wild,” Zhang said.

To cope with difficulties in habitat fragmentation, experts have proposed the idea of building corridors connecting fragmented habitats, so that pandas can travel between habitats to find partners during mating season.

A plan to build a national park for giant pandas was proposed in August and has been submitted for approval, according to the Sichuan forestry department.

The giant panda is an “umbrella species,” and the preservation of their habitat can help the survival of many other mammals, birds and amphibians in their region. “Local patrol teams have seen snow leopards, red pandas and golden monkeys in our Wolong reserve,” Zhang said. “When you are protecting pandas, you are protecting other species as well,” Wildt said

A panda DNA archive is expected to be built to get a better grasp of pandas’ genetic diversity, Zhang said.