A paw education
Paul Mooney in Dujiangyan
The metal door opened and the young giant panda cautiously stuck out his head, peering inquisitively at the crowd of onlookers.
Nervously, he put his front paw down in his new enclosure and emerged for the first time.
It was one small step for Gongzai, but potentially a a giant leap for pandas born in captivity.
Gongzai and five other giant pandas were transferred to Panda Valley, officially known as the Dujiangyan Research Centre of Giant Panda Breeding and Rehabilitation. The 20-hectare nature reserve in the hills of Sichuan province is the key to what one panda expert said was a 'baby step' towards reintroducing pandas bred in captivity into the wild.
Researchers hope the pandas will learn to live without human help.
It is estimated there are just 1,600 pandas living in the wild today, putting them on the endangered list.
Their lowland habitat has been destroyed, another victim of the mainland's rapid economic growth.
There are another 300 pandas in captivity.
In an event jokingly dubbed 'one giant helping another', former basketball superstar Yao Ming took part in the ceremony.
He lifted the gates of the six pandas' cages and released them into their new enclosures. Shy at first, they were soon munching bamboo.
'I think it is most important to keep a balance between modern living and nature,' Yao said.
'We have been talking about it for many years but it is never an easy thing to do.'
Experts will observe the pandas in the hope of learning how they can one day be returned to the wild.
'The focus of our work is changing,' said Professor Hou Rong, director at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
'Before, we only focused on breeding in captivity, but in the future we will focus on reintroduction work.' Dr Sarah Bexell, director of conservation education at the breeding base, emphasised that the pandas were not yet being prepared for reintroduction to the wild.
'We are very far from attempting anything that could be called reintroduction, nor have we started any type of reintroduction research,' she said.
'This is literally the very first baby step toward starting research into a humane and possible reintroduction protocol for giant pandas.'
The first six pandas, aged between two and four years, were selected from 108 bred through artificial insemination at the Chengdu base, home to the largest population of giant pandas bred in captivity.
Experts hope that their youth will mean they are better able to survive on their own. 'Rather than keeping them in their enclosures, we will spend the next 50 years helping them return to their natural habitat, which is the ultimate goal of the Chengdu Panda Base,' Zhang Zhihe, director of the base, said in December.
Qi Dunwu, an expert on wild pandas at the Chengdu breeding centre, told the Sunday Morning Post that he and his colleagues spent a year choosing the pandas, based on age, health, gender ratio and genetic background.
The daily behaviour of the pandas was also part of the test, including their ability to socialise, their feeding habits and even play habits.
Twins Xingrong and Xingya, Gongzai, Yingying, Zhizhi and Qiqi, were found to have better adaptability skills, and so were chosen for the pioneer programme. Bexell, an American scholar who has spent more than 12 years working with pandas in Chengdu, said that reintroduction was extremely risky, with the majority of individuals of most species dying soon after reintroduction to the wild.
'In captivity, mammals lose a lot of their natural behaviours.
'They have to learn them on their own, before reintroduction, in semi-wild protected areas where humans can monitor them for behavioural adeptness,' she said.
The most well-known release of a panda into the wild ended miserably within 10 months.
Xiangxiang, a five-year-old from the Wolong Panda Reserve, was killed in a fight with a stronger wild panda, which apparently had intentions towards a female.
Foraging is another issue. Scientists say that giant pandas spend about 55 per cent of their time feeding - both in daylight and at night - with bamboo accounting for 99 per cent of their diet.
But pandas bred in captivity have no ability to forage on their own for bamboo still growing out of the ground.
'If we put a panda in the wild in the future, the challenge will be to be able to feed themselves and survive in the wild,' Hou said. 'This phase at Dujiangyan will make it possible to do research on this.'
Male pandas are quite territorial, and distinguishing home ranges is something captive pandas must learn to do.
'All male pandas have their own home range,' Hou said.
'We have to guide the captive male pandas in learning how to avoid conflicts with other male pandas, and to do this, we need to do more research.'
Qi pointed to two skills the released pandas would have to develop. First, they would have to learn how to establish their own home range. Secondly, they would have to be able to recognise the homes of other male pandas.
Pandas usually distinguish their range by marking objects with urine and anal gland deposits.
'They lack a home range in captivity and their space is smaller,' he said, 'and so they must be able to recognise the home range of other pandas so they can avoid trouble.' Another concern is disease.
Bexell said: 'Captive and wild animals do not have the same immunities to disease vectors and even carry different diseases.
'Reintroducing an animal that carries a disease to which their wild counterparts are not immune could wipe out all the wild pandas in an area. It takes time to study and understand these things and then take precautions.'
None of the experts would predict how long it would be before the pandas would be ready to be released into the wild.
Hou explained that in the first phase, the pandas will be closely monitored and that the programme will proceed carefully, step by step.
'It's a long road,' she conceded. 'If you don't do basic research, the risk for the pandas will be very high.'