Six pandas bred in captivity wandered into an enclosed nature preserve in their native central China on Wednesday, a step toward eventually being reintroduced to the wild.
Researchers hope the captive-born pandas will be weaned from dependency on humans in the coming years and learn to forage, mate and fend for themselves. Success in the reintroduction project would potentially help save the endangered giant panda. An estimated 1,600 live in the wild, their numbers dwindling from poaching and encroaching development. More than 300 pandas are in captivity in China, which funds breeding programs.
The pandas seemed tentative upon their release. They later ambled about, eating bamboo in their new home, a 50-acre (20-hectare) controlled habitat called Panda Valley in the forested hills of Sichuan province, where pandas are native.
The newly released pandas are between the ages of 2 and 4 years old and were selected for their health, behavior and genes from among 108 pandas at the Chengdu Panda Base, a breeding center in the provincial capital.
In a sign of the hopes for the project's success, retired NBA star and conservation advocate Yao Ming attended a ceremony for the release of the six pandas. "I think it is most important to keep a balance between modern living and nature. We have been talking about it for many years but it is never an easy thing to do," Yao told reporters afterward.
The $4.75 million habitat is the first phase of the project which will be expanded in area and which aims to hold 30 pandas at a time and release 100 of them into the wild over 50 years.
Some environmentalists question the project, given the difficulties captive-bred animals have surviving in the wild. Another panda project started in 2003 suffered a setback when Xiang Xiang, a male panda trained for three years, was found dead in 2007 a year after he was released into the Woolong Nature Reserve.