July 10, 2006

China panda, born to be wild, coping well

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's first captive-bred giant panda
to be released into the wild has been coping well in bamboo
forests in the country's southwest, state media said on Monday.

The April release of Xiang Xiang, a four-year-old male,
came after nearly three years of training to toughen him up at
a research institute in the mountainous province of Sichuan.

"Through surveillance we found out that Xiang Xiang had
gradually adapted to the wild environment," said Zhang Hemin,
director of the Wolong Giant Panda Protection and Research

"We have also detected other wild pandas in the area, which
means Xiang Xiang is being integrated into a wild population,"
Zhang told CCTV state television.

Researchers fitted a global positioning system (GPS) device
around the animal's neck to monitor his activities, CCTV said.

They would study his choice of territory, his meals and
waste, but would strictly avoid direct contact so as to help
him completely shake off dependence on humans, the report said.

The giant panda is one of the world's most endangered and
exotic species and is found only in China. An estimated 1,500
wild pandas live in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces.

State media said China had also raised about 180 giant
pandas in captive breeding programs and spent $12.5 million
since 2003 training them for release into the wild. Some
experts, though, are guarded about their prospects, citing a
number of unknowns.

Surveillance of Xiang Xiang will continue until 2008 when
the GPS hoop drops automatically after its battery runs out,
Zhang said. "By then, our Xiang Xiang will have become a real
wild panda."