He was born to be wild

By Joyee Chan

To save the giant panda from extinction we need to do more to protect the forests it lives in

By Joyee Chan |

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What's black and white and enjoying life in the wild? The answer is Tao Tao, the panda cub who was born in captivity but is now celebrating more than a year of freedom.

Tao Tao has been roaming around a nature reserve in Sichuan and seems to be having a good time - he's already put on 10kg!

But panda expert Sarah Bexell says that reintroducing pandas back into the wild is risky business and also a sign of how desperate we are to save endangered animals. Instead we should do more to protect Tao Tao's home, the bamboo forests of central China.

Unfortunately the last panda released into the wild didn't do so well. Xiang Xiang was released after three years of training in 2007 but was killed after just 10 months by other pandas in a fight over food and land.

"We cannot save wildlife through technology," says Bexell, who was in Hong Kong recently to talk about her book, Giant Pandas: Born Survivors.

"We have to manage the size of our population in smart ways. Humans need to learn to be a species that is willing to share the planet with other beings."

At the last count in 2004, it was revealed that as few as 1,600 giant pandas live in the wild. Another 300 or so are kept in zoos around the world, including Tokyo, Edinburgh and Washington, DC.

The problem with releasing pandas born in captivity is that they lose a lot of the skills that would help them survive in the wild. They can also have problems relating to other pandas, says Bexell. It would be similar to keeping a human in a closet from birth and then expecting them to care for themselves when they reach 18, she adds.

Even if the animals do adapt to life in the wild, they still face many other problems including the destruction of their homes, humans getting too close and fitting in with their wild friends.

The 16 nature reserves set aside for giant pandas in China are not well protected. Humans chop down trees and even try to kill the pandas. Mining companies and property developers also want a piece of the land. Experts agree there needs to be tougher laws to protect the reserves and the pandas.

Bexell says the government and conservationists face a huge challenge. For example, when she first arrived to work at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in 1999, Chengdu's population stood at eight million and only government officials owned cars. Just 14 years on, the population has almost doubled and people are creating far more pollution. There is only so much more our planet can take, and if we don't treat it better, it won't just be the panda that dies out, Bexell says.

"We have to encourage the public to see this, understand this and act accordingly instead of being greedy," she says. "Otherwise, the rest of this will be a waste of our time. We aren't saving room for any other animals. Once we run out of resources, we'll have nothing to eat and no clean water either."

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