National Geographic : 2016 Aug
84 national geographic • August 2016 of aggression from wild male pandas. Those losses were “media disasters for China,” Wildt says. But each led scientists to “try to think more like a panda, to understand what the bears truly need” and refine training and release protocols, Papa Panda says. At press time, as many as three pandas were being considered for release in July. Like breeding, rewilding pandas “will take trial and error, time and money,” McShea says. “But the Chinese will be successful.” Papa Panda is similarly confident: “The ultimate goal is to release, release, release,” he told me. “I’ve had two important jobs in my life so far. To get pandas breeding, which is now no problem. Now we have to make sure there’s good habitat and then put pandas in it.” And once they’re running free and ready to 70 years, warming could reduce the remaining giant panda habitat by nearly 60 percent. At least for now, rebuilding, connecting, and pro- tecting habitat may be the best focus for panda conservation. More important than sheer num- bers of cubs produced, says Marc Brody, is “the chance to give those young pandas a home.” Sending pandas “home” has had mixed results so far. Of the five animals released since 2006, all wearing tracking collars, three are still out there. Two were found dead, one probably the victim Trained and ready for freedom, Zhang Xiang (The Thoughtful One) takes her first steps into the Liziping Nature Reserve in 2013. She was the first female released since reintroductions began—and judging from her tracking-collar signals, she’s doing just fine.