Puzzle for pandas to bear in mind

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 March, 2006, 12:00am

Enthused students tell of projects to help conservation

Ocean Park's giant panda An An has a puzzling new toy aimed at stimulating mind and body.

It is a 60cm food-filled plastic cylinder lined with holes that 19-year-old An An has to manipulate to extract food. By rolling it this way and that, he can get small pieces of apples, carrots and biscuits.

The puzzle feeder was designed by Vivien Bao Weiwei and Angela Lam Ka-ki from the University of Hong Kong's department of ecology and biodiversity, one of four conservation projects sponsored by the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation.

In their search for the perfect item to stimulate notoriously lazy pandas, Ms Bao and Ms Lam designed three types of toys-the puzzle feeder, a sack and a bell - and tested them at Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan .

The puzzle feeder, which on average has pandas working for 45 minutes to extract the food, turned out to be a hit.

'If the pandas spend too much time alone and have nothing to do, they can even hurt themselves,' said Ms Bao, who is planning a career in nature conservation. 'The toy will develop their ability to get food ... and have fun.'

The other three projects are monitoring finless porpoise and baiji populations in Poyang Lake, in Jiangxi province ; studying the threatened Chinese white dolphin; and studying the ecosystem of the Mabian Dafengding Nature Reserve in Sichuan.

The eight students involved in the four projects were at Ocean Park yesterday to talk about their experiences.

Tracy Pang Chui-yi said five days working on the Yangtze River watching the finless porpoises had made her feel a part of the famous river.

'My heart is tied closely to the Yangtze,' she said.

Ms Pang's project partner, Milla Fok Man-sze, said: 'The marvellous connection between the porpoises and us has made our minds up to contribute to conservation.'

The students' supervisor, Gray Williams, said students gaining first-hand experience was much more precious to them than listening to his lectures.

Suzanne Gendron, director of the foundation's zoological operations and education division, said the environmental protection industry was experiencing a shortage of talent and more young professionals were needed. '[The students] gained emotional experience, and they learned the importance of harmony and balance between nature and humans. It is the most important thing which will influence their lives,' she said.